About 20 years ago, a school district with which I was familiar was selecting a new superintendent. One of the school board members told me “Jeff, we need a healer.” I am not sure what that means, but the school board seemed to interpret a “healer” as a schmoozing, back slapping empty suit who hadn’t done a day’s work for decades. He was a nice guy, but he had no idea how to plan and deliver the kind of change required to improve education or operations in that district.
A few months later, I ran into one of the teachers on the district’s hiring committee. She was in a rage because the committee had carefully interviewed and recommended excellent candidates. Those union jobs paid well and offered excellent benefits, so the district could have had the pick of the litter from a national pool of candidates. The new superintendent tossed out the list of peer-recommended candidates and hired more politically palatable ones. In other words, he hired less qualified candidates who were related to or known to school board members. Does that happen in your public sector organization?
One amazing discovery of mine during this period concerned the agenda of a school board. I did a great deal of work for various school districts in the 1990’s and the only subject that never came up in school board meetings was quality of education. Sports, budgets, finance, technology, union relations and personnel issues were discussed routinely but quality of education was an issue that was never raised. How can the core mission of an organization never come up for discussion?
Another organization I have observed for several decades had an amazing management team in place for well over 20 years. The board members were highly educated, intelligent and understood their roles as policy makers rather than micro managers. The manager was confident, competent and made administration of the city look simple. His retirement and significant changes to the composition of the city council have resulted in the downward spiral of the organization’s operations. They are now plagued with financial and personnel problems that would never have occurred under the previous regime. Management is everything.
In the public sector, hiring decisions tend to be permanent and governing boards seem to have little appetite for correcting a hiring mistake no matter how egregious the problems. More often than not, a board will allow a bad hiring decision to drive the organization into the ground rather than admitting the error, eradicating the problem and starting from scratch.
Do I have a solution? Constitutional, democratic government offers us the freedom to fail or succeed, individually and as communities. Open government and citizen involvement, embraced by elected officials and appointed managers is the answer but citizens must take the plunge and get involved. Unless citizens become more involved in local government and hold politicians and managers accountable, these kinds of problems will continue to worsen.
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