Note to Obama: Leave Our Senators Alone

Sen. Jack Reed, delegate Mary Alyce Gasbarro, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse at delegation breakfast on the last day of the DNC. (Photo by John McDaid)

Could we please have one day in which one of our recently- or even not so recently-elected pols isn’t a candidate for some other job? If the #2 line prep cook in the East Wing kitchen calls in sick, Politico will immediately speculate that Obama is already talking to Jack Reed.

Leave our Senators alone. Operative word: our.

We elected people into offices to fix the serious, serious problems we face right here at home, and these are not “one-term” problems. Just as President Obama inherited an epic cluster-up that is not even half-way fixed, Governor Chafee and Mayor Taveras stepped into profoundly dysfunctional enterprises.

I find Dee DeQuattro’s speculation on changes we may see in or before 2014 deeply troubling. I want the incumbents to spend some more time doing the job they told us they were going to do when we elected them.

The Value of Good Managers

Over the past 15 years, I’ve spent almost all of my professional time in either startup or transitional/turnaround organizations. I’ve found that in all cases, the quality of the managers is key, but talent and bull-work cover up a lot of sins in a startup. In transitions and turnarounds, it’s all about the execution.

Organizations need to transition or turnaround because the asset base – the stuff they’ve built up – has become misaligned with the need set of their market. The basic job of work for the new management team is to realign the existing components to restore or enhance the flow of value through the organization.

Complex organizations comprise many divisions, departments, brands, etc., each of which represents its own specific transitional challenge. The greater the misalignment between assets and needs, the bigger a job it is to restore the flow of value.

In “transitions”, organizations change themselves; in “turnarounds”, changes are forced by external circumstances. Guess which one we got…

Bringing real and lasting change into our badly misaligned governmental organizations will take years and years of steady leadership. So rather than seeing Mayor Taveras run for governor, I would far prefer that he secure a second term and use it to develop a succession plan to carry the work forward after he has moved on.

A Case in Point

I had a meeting up in Boston with the New Urban Mechanics, Mayor Menino’s nationally prominent “Government 2.0” group. Their stock presentation starts more-or-less like this:

Thomas Menino has been Mayor of Boston for nearly 20 years. Calling himself “the urban mechanic”, he has spent those years fixing many of the city’s dysfunctional agencies, making them responsive, customer service organizations.


20 years. That’s a lot of election cycles. Where would Boston be today if Menino had decided to run for Congress? They most certainly would not be making smartphone apps that use the phone’s accelerometer to map potholes.

The New Urban Mechanics stressed the point that their work would not have been possible but for the quality of the organization on which their products depend. You can’t use data if it ain’t there.

Providence, then, has only just begun its journey toward organizational success. Having many years of frustrating experience with the city’s previous IT administration and having been a candidate for the CIO job, I can say with some authority that Providence as an organization could not effectively support the kind of work the New Urban Mechanics do.

But the city is starting down the path. I don’t want to dwell on this point, so suffice it to say that Mayor Taveras, his Chief of Staff Michael D’Amico and CIO Jim Silveria are doing a solid job with what can only be described as “a mess”. IT, a chronically under-resourced department, is utterly crushed under the organizational demands. It’s one of those rare cases where simply throwing a lot of money at the problem would have a massive impact, but that’s just not a possibility.

Instead, the Taveras administration will need to work piece by piece and department by department to shore up what’s weak and try to repair or replace those parts that don’t work. And such a pursuit takes time. So Mr. Mayor and all the gang – take your coats off and stay a while.

Meanwhile, in the Governor’s Office

Mayor Taveras must be pretty relieved that HE doesn’t have to deal with the absolute catastrophe that is the RIEDC. And Governor Chafee is likely spitting mad at the Carcieri mob for putting a flaming bag of poo on the state house steps, ringing the doorbell and running away.

And yet I hear people complaining that Chafee hasn’t done enough to create jobs.

In all honesty, I took my eye off the ball for the first year-and-a-half of this administration, so I can’t really assess whether or not Chafee is the manager we need. My gut tells me he is.

Look at the basics:

  • He’s a wonk
  • He’s a nerd
  • He spent significant time as an executive (Mayuh uh Wahhick)
  • Warwick seems like a competent enterprise
  • The MBTA train stops at the airport
  • That waste water treatment plant…it’s the shizz

But like most Rhode Islanders, I only have so much patience. To defend his office, Chafee will need at least one, big, ringing success. Where Mr. Taveras seems gifted with mayoral superpowers, Governor Chafee appears all-too-mortal. And please, Governor, do NOT try to make your one big thing a “buffalo hunting” trophy company such as…well, you know.

Instead, I hope the governor focuses on energy services and the environment as pathways to economic prosperity, championing:

  • A feed-in tariff for alternative energy
  • A “buy local” set aside for key state procurements (food, unis, laundry – the basics)
  • Large-scale composting
  • Farming-preferred zoning and land-use laws

And in the name of human compassion, please lead in the effort to transition our housing stock away from heating with oil -OR- develop a bio-diesel supply chain up to the scale we need for our supply.

See what I’ve done? In the absence of direct awareness of specific managerial decisions, I’ve just produced a wish list of policy items for the success of which Governor Chafee would need to wrangle the obstreperous General Assembly. Good luck with that.

Chafee’s success starts and ends with the EDC. Having spent a bit of time inside 315 Iron Horse Way, I know there’s a lot more to that place than just the kind of people who brought us 38 Studios. For example, a lot of people spent significant energy producing this Green Economy Roadmap only to see any follow-on action personally crushed by Mr. Carcieri via his henchman, Al Verrecchia.

The Carcieri mob liked to put on a good show, creating expert-laden, press-ready workshops on all the hot-button issues. All the while, it turns out, they could not have cared less. Rather, they were hell bent on the regressive economic development approaches they claimed to oppose.

Those workshops, however, actually delivered some degree of value, at least the ones that I worked on. Those experts are actual experts, and a lot of the work is quite good. One might even suggest that the Governor’s people dig into the archives of the late, lamented Economic Policy Council. (Here’s how you know somebody’s a sucky manager: they always fire the wrong people.)

So if Mr. Chafee wants to keep his job, he had better get some good people in the right positions making the right decisions. As an Independent, he’s on an island. The RI Democratic Party has a job to do. And I hear that they’re starting a Republican party in Rhode Island, too, so there’s that.

The Alternative

Rhode Islanders, against these incumbent consider the unavoidable result of changing these two key administrations at this specific point in time. Nearly two years into their first terms, each of these executive leaders has only just begun to get a handle on the deep issues, Taveras more than Chafee it would appear.

Were we to send new people to these offices, the new leaders would need at least a year – and likely more – to learn the organization and it’s peculiarities, it’s hidden power holders, it’s ins, it’s outs, it’s what-have-you’s. (You have to know the players and their ways before you can take a serious shot.) We would lose time, significant time, and time is one thing our economy, our environment and our state ain’t got.

The best thing we can hope for is that they stick and stay and make it pay.

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Author of Yesterday on the Internet: Diary of a Cultural Warrior from Light Publications. Avoid at all costs and report activities to the appropriate authorities.

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