Friday, August 05, 2005

Column 43 - TRPA Culture

In my “national” column on Sunday, I wrote about the Constitution and the system of checks and balances – that I trust that system and am not too worried about the Supreme Court nominations. That got me thinking about how that system works or doesn’t at a more local, personal level.

The Federal Government handles all the big stuff, but the decisions that affect our day to day lives are made more locally and very differently. Legislatures, down to the local level, make the laws, the Executive branch, from the President to the local mayor or commissioner enforce them, and courts, from the Supremes down to Jim Mancuso interpret them and judge those who transgress. That’s fine as far as it goes, but throughout history there has been a parallel structure that administers the laws, enforces policies, and interprets the policies to you and me, and that is the government bureaucracy.

Now sometimes that works pretty well. In the case of IVGID, the Board of Trustees function in the executive capacity (the legislature and judiciary are at the County level, which creates a whole host of other problems) and the IVGID staff, under the able leadership and direction of Bill Horn administers the District. It works pretty well for the Fire District as well, again due to capable leadership by Jim Linardos and a staff that understand their job and do it well.

In the case of TRPA, the results are more mixed. TRPA falls under the Executive Branch – it is appointed by two governors and the President – and its job is to enforce the Compact, regulating activities that would impact the clarity of the lake and (as amended) the scenic quality of the lake. Sounds simple enough, right? Not really. You see, where the executive branches of government have a whole body of laws and cases to tell them exactly what it is they are to enforce, TRPA’s compact is written in very general terms and leaves it up to the agency to determine what will and will not fall within its purview. That’s where the bureaucracy comes in.

TRPA is governed by its Board, and its day to day work is done by its staff. Unlike IVGID and the Fire District, TRPA’s Board has a history of deferring to its staff and being dominated by its former Executive Director. Unlike the generally mature and professional staffs of the other two organizations, TRPA’s staff tends to the young, idealistic, and doctrinaire – in short, it is a classic bureaucracy government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority; a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation (dictionary).

John Singlaub, TRPA’s new Executive Director took the job with a declared commitment to changing the culture. So far his results in this regard are mixed, at best and instances of the staff ignoring his and the Board’s directives to do what they feel should be done continue. I am told by people who work with John that “culture change takes time.” As one who has made a successful career of facilitating culture change efforts in business and non-profits alike, I would be the first to say it doesn’t happen overnight, but I have found the “it takes time” mantra to be an excuse for footdragging and ineffectiveness more often than not. Several things make organizational change move faster:

1. Strong, consistent leadership that talks about, lives, and promotes the new culture 100% of the time.
2. A strong commitment on leadership’s part that members of the organization are either on for the new culture or they will be gone
3. A demand for clear, unfiltered communication both within the organization and with the outside.
4. A commitment to break down hierarchy and silos so that everyone has all the information they need at the same time.
5. Clear alignment of the culture change with the organization’s vision and mission so it is clear to all that this is not the “management flavor of the month”
6. Unequivocal Board support for the change and the executives leading the change.

I wish John well in his efforts, and want to remind him that this is a case where speed counts – a slow culture change effort will not succeed and will be ground down by bureaucracy, whose main mission is to maintain the status quo.

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