Be Sure You’re Right, Then Go Ahead (Management lessons from Davy Crockett)

“Be sure you’re right, then go ahead”

This quote was attributed to Davy Crockett in the 1950s Disney television series. It was a simple moral lesson for the young viewers in the audience absorbed in watching once a week the adventures of Fess Parker in his coonskin cap portray the legendary 19th century frontiersman.

Like so many other words of wisdom, it encapsulates, in a simple phrase, a broader concept that often can be easier said than done, particularly in the realm of managing the daily implementation of public policy.

Much of public policy has more to do with the perspective of the policy makers than with right and wrong. Although they may firmly believe they are “right” when a majority on the governing body makes a final decision on an issue, those on the opposite side of the issue are equally convinced of the “rightness” of their position. Researchers think there are measureable differences in the way people view and absorb the exact same sets of facts or events that lead them to adopt partisan positions. Members of the community share these same traits. For the staff and managers charged with implementation of public policies, this can be a challenge.

The way supposedly objective and subjective elements of public policy intertwine can create a “perfect storm” of disagreement as to just what is “right.”

Ponder these real world examples and observations that illustrate the challenges.

Mother may I? 

In an effort to avoid liability for taking private property through regulation, the city council included a number of “bonuses” that could be applied by a developer to gain back density otherwise lost through various setbacks and reserves required to protect environmentally-sensitive areas on the site. At the end of the ordinance section, a caveat was added advising any prospective applicant that even if one took advantage of all the available bonuses, it may not be possible to regain the full density possible from a similarly-sized but unencumbered piece of property. Unfortunately, all the ordinance actually said was something like: “You may not achieve the full density.” Fast forward a few years and an application was received that attempted, with some success, to observe all the various required setbacks and reserves and still put the same number of units on the site.  Opponents read the code and concluded that “You may not achieve the full density” as an absolute, meaning “You shall not achieve the full density.”  The staff processed the application with the understanding that the city council meant it as a caveat not a mandate, and the opponents strongly argued the opposite. Eventually some sort of compromise was reached, but not before a lot of negative energy was expended with the staff taking a great deal of criticism and mistrust.

Regardless of one’s point of view on the issue itself, all this could have been avoided by adopting clearer more specific language in the first place.

Sand in the gears

A procedural mistake can derail even the most worthy proposal. Whether it’s the criminal justice system or a rezone application, the rights of all the various parties are guaranteed by local, state, and national laws. Failure to observe the letter of the law as well as the spirit of the law, as in the appearance of fairness doctrine, must be avoided. Mistakes may happen, but if your local ordinances are so difficult to understand that procedures are confusing or hard to follow, the chances for a mistake are multiplied. Furthermore, a sophisticated constituency knows how to bring a process to a halt just by claiming a procedural misstep.

Here are some real examples.

The empty hearing room – No one appeared at the public hearing on a particular project, so a board member, who was opposed to the project, asserted that the hearing notices must not have been mailed, when, in fact, they had been.  This resulted in a 30-day delay.

Whose woods are these? – A city code required that mailed notices be sent to surrounding property owners within so many feet of a proposed project along with a notice posted “on the property.” The applicant’s site was within a larger undeveloped wooded site. The posted hearing notice was inadvertently erected near but not actually on the applicant’s property; a procedural misstep resulting in another delay and unfounded accusations from both the applicant and project opponents that it was somehow done intentionally.

Round and Round – Using circular logic, an opponent of an application for a project that was allowed under the codes then in effect, filed a proposal to amend the comprehensive plan to make such projects illegal. The person then challenged the validity of continuing to process the application on the grounds that a comp plan amendment was “pending.”

What’s the “right” thing to do?

When adopting and implementing laws and policies, take the extra time to make sure the intent is clear and that implementation and enforcement are achievable. You don’t have to get into the specifics of the policy to ask the staff to look for obvious pitfalls before you take the final vote.

With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see how a few easy modifications to the notice requirements and agenda packets could have avoided at least the first two situations above.

As the chief executive or manager within the organization, you are responsible for the performance of the staff. Unclear, unenforceable policies inhibit individual and organizational performance.  A common organizational response is to develop “work arounds” – adaptations to unclear, anomalous, or simply stupid procedures. Like the layers of an onion, these steps accrete and before you know it, the process is bogged down by seemingly unknown forces. A procedure adopted to respond to a particular incident stays in place long after whatever precipitated the incident is no longer an issue. I remember the caption from a cartoon in my building inspector’s office: “There’s no reason for it, it’s just our policy.” Don’t let that be your motto.

Be aware of this natural tendency. Use process improvement techniques and involve the staff in analyzing the way your organization gets things done. As I’ve said before, “Assume nothing – it’s probably not as good as it seems.” Not only does the staff appreciate being able to contribute to process improvement, they’re the real experts anyway. Clearing obstacles that inhibit your employees’ best performance is an important aspect of effective leadership.

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career includes 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is a Credentialed Manager through the ICMA Voluntary Credentialing program.
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