Changing the Government from the “Top”

Politically within the United States, we are in the midst of what might be considered as an uncivil conflict. America has been divided into red states and blue states, with social media serving as the battleground. The casualties in this conflict include opportunity costs — the outcomes this country could have achieved had we been working together instead of battling each other. We need to make some changes if we want to improve this situation and ultimately the nation.

When most people think about making improvements at the national level of government, they consider the “top” as beginning with the President, the U.S. Congress, or a political party. However, by law, the “top” is “We the People,” according to the U.S. Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [emphasis mine]

The vision for America is to work together toward achieving “a more perfect Union.” Working to achieve this aim must be led and supported by “We the People” and not by the red states, blue states, or “deep state” politicians and their respective interest groups. These groups add value by identifying the polarity on issues and offering nonpartisan solutions but can also be corrosive to a system that was designed to be continually improved.

Tip O’Neill, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, reinforced that all politics is local.” Therefore, the U.S. government can be improved starting from the local level of government.

If “We the People” can begin the transition to improve quality at the county level of government, we could demonstrate a successful approach that might inspire improvements at the state and national levels of government.

The goal at the county level would be a shared vision for the future — a plan that identifies what people want and do not want regarding economic and community development. This would be followed by action that results in outcomes that citizens would agree result in a “more perfect” county.

To achieve these results, we need more independent voters as well as a critical mass of quality leaders.

Independent Voters Are Needed

An “independent voter” is an individual who votes for the person they believe is the best candidate, regardless of any political party affiliation. The “best” representative is someone who can lead change that results in everyone benefitting or, at least not being any worse off in the long term.

I consider myself a political independent. To vote in the primaries in my home state of Indiana, you have to declare a party, so I registered as a Republican. However, I vote for the best candidate, regardless of political party affiliation. If there is not a good candidate for a position, I leave the selection blank to send a message to the parties to recruit better candidates.

Last year, 42% of Americans identified themselves as political independents, while 29% percent identified themselves as Democrats and 27% as Republicans, according to Gallup. In upcoming elections, we need more people to be independent voters. In other words, we need more people to elect individuals based on their ability to address issues and challenges rather on their political party affiliation.

Critical Mass of Quality Leaders Are Needed

While it is important to let your voice be heard by voting, elections only come every so often. That’s why we need more quality leaders.

I support the theory identified by W. Edwards Deming. His contributions for improving quality were recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nine turning points in world history and by FORTUNE Magazine as among the greatest contributions to business history.

Deming believed that you need a critical mass of quality leaders to improve or transform an organization (e.g., group, community, country). Quality leaders are individuals who can apply and support the application of the better methods to improve processes and systems, resulting in outcomes where everyone gains, or at least are not any worse off in the long term.

The number of leaders needed can be calculated as the square root of an organization:

“In a small staff of 25, just 5 dedicated people who are committed to the improvement process and who work consistently will create a transformation. The same is true in a classroom. Think about getting a critical mass of students in a classroom. In a class of 30 students, the square root would be approximately 5.5. Since you can’t have half a child, round to 6. If you can get 6 students to commit and begin working with you and supporting your initiatives; you can transform the culture of the class.” — David Langford

As anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

An Example of What Is Possible

The challenges that local counties face can parallel the political polarity found at the national level. A political party can develop a monopoly on political power, which can be described as allowing a few people (along with ad-hoc project teams or interest groups) to dominate decision-making. Monopolies can lead to an abuse of power, which leads to less transparency, a lower quality of decision-making, and poorer results. It also leads to policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Take, for example, the county in which I live: Brown County, Indiana. Around 15,000 people live in this small rural county. Residents appreciate its natural beauty, the rural environment, the friendly people, and our history as the “Artist Colony of the Midwest.” Key strengths include our community foundation, volunteers, and excellent schools.

Brown County has the highest concentration of forested land of any of Indiana’s 92 counties. Much of the county’s 312 square miles are state and federal lands or privately owned and not open to development. It is among the least populated county in Indiana, with a population density of just 48 people per square mile, compared with 182 statewide. The majority of employed citizens commute outside the county for work and tourism accounts for approximately 30% of jobs within the county, which contributes to a low to moderate income level.

Brown County has seen its share of challenges lately. The county government has recently implemented some policies that many residents view as being fiscally irresponsible, including:

  • Approval of a fast-track process to build a $12.5 million government-owned and government-managed music venue without providing citizens an opportunity to provide input on the desirability of the project, conducting an independent feasibility study, or reviewing the complete business plan before approving the project
  • A taxpayer-funded settlement for a township issue resulting from what some residents considered a hostile takeover of a volunteer fire department
  • A proposal to build a new $10 million courthouse without identifying the compelling need and analyzing other alternatives
  • Pushing through a $7.3 million wastewater treatment proposal without identifying the need or addressing the concerns and issues with people affected by the project

The critical mass needed to lead a transformation using methods that respect what citizens want (and do not want) regarding economic and community development is 112 (the approximate square root of 12,500 registered voters).

While we have not reached the critical mass of quality leaders yet, our network includes individuals who have opposite political positions regarding national policies but support basic governance principles. We are putting any left-wing/right-wing biases aside and working together to achieve “a more perfect county.”

The Independent Voters of Brown County IN website and Facebook page includes non-partisan suggestions for addressing our local challenges. The intent is to identify principles that could provide common ground and a strategy for improvement. A local  Facebook group was also created to share information and discuss “matters that matter” to the citizens of Brown County.

How You Can Help

Legendary National Football League coach Vince Lombardi remarked that “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” A more perfect county and country requires that citizens identify their vision for “more perfect.” The next step is to work together to apply methods to continually improve the processes and systems that will lead to “catching excellence.”

If you support the concept that national-level change can be led from the “top” (“We the People”) and want to provide moral support, go to our Independent Voters of Brown County IN Facebook page and “Like” us.  A few thousand “Likes” will provide some positive feedback. It will also help reinforce that it’s a small world and that local efforts can have wide-scale impacts.

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Ray Dalio, China, and W. Edwards Deming

Post on LinkedIn. 

Chinese-American Misunderstandings, Disputes, and Wars By Ray Dalio, June 18, 2018.

I certainly respect Ray Dalio’s success as an investor, hedge fund manager, and author.  In his article, he includes references from a “wise and high-ranking Chinese official” that compares and contrast the cultural, political and economic differences between the U.S. and China.

The best-kept secret in America is that our system was designed to be continuously improved in pursuit of “a more perfect Union.”  What the design has lacked is a method or operating system that we can “individually” and “collectively” apply in taking action that results in outcomes where everyone benefits or at least, are not any worse off in the long-term.  This “operating system” or paradigm, was discovered by Walther Shewhart and further developed by W. Edwards Deming.  How China reacts if and when we start to leverage the capability of this new operating system will be interesting to watch.

Suicide, PTSD and Culture – A Deming Perspective

Headline News:  Americans are depressed and suicidal because something is wrong with our culture.  Kirsten Powers, Opinion columnist, USA Today, published 10:27 a.m. ET June 9, 2018 

Post and Discussion on LinkedIn.  As of June 19, 2018, 25,618 views, 96 likes, 48 comments, 12 reshares.

Given human nature and the fact that people are imperfect, there will likely always be suicides.  Studies indicate that there is a correlation between culture and suicide. As a Society, is our system stable, e.g.,  the number of suicides fall within a predictable range, or is it unstable?  The article by Kristen Powers identified “that suicide rates have risen nearly 30% since 1999, making it a national crisis.”  Does the 30% represent special cause variation?  A special cause identifies that based on the numbers, it is a statistically significant shift justifying the conclusion that it is a “crisis.”  If the “30%” represents common cause variation, then the number falls within a predictable range.  Stable does not mean good – just means its predictable.

The so what?  The aim of the Deming system for improvement is to take action that results in outcomes where everyone benefits or at least, are not any worse off in the long-term. This standard cannot be met without an understanding of common and special cause variation. Application of this knowledge significantly increases the probability that needed change will result in improvement – especially one that may require cultural changes.  Deming estimated that failure to understand the difference between common and special cause variation can lead to situations where 95% of action resulted in no improvement. He referred to this as “tampering.” Kristen Powers’ decision of sharing her story can certainly be considered among the positive improvement actions that can be taken.

Supporting Articles and Links

 

Center for Disease Control (CDC)  Suicide rates rising across the U.S.

CDC Vital Signs – Suicides

  • Suicide is a leading cause of death for Americans
  • Suicide is a leading cause of death in the US. Suicide rates increased in nearly every state from 1999 through 2016.
  • More than half of people (54%) who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition.
  • Suicide rates went up more than 30% in half of the states since 1999.
  • Nearly 45,000 lives lost to suicide in 2016.

Americans are depressed and suicidal because something is wrong with our culture Kirsten Powers, Opinion columnist, USA Today, published 10:27 a.m. ET June 9, 2018 

  • Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong. We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.
  • But most Americans are depressed, anxious or suicidal because something is wrong with our culture, not because something is wrong with them.
  • Changing our culture is critical. Being honest with others about our own personal struggles and dark nights of the soul is the first step. People on the edge need to hear stories that assure them there is a way through the all-consuming pain to a meaningful life.  

New York Times, Suicides Have Increased. Is This an Existential Crisis? June 23, 2018.

As a behavioral scientist who studies basic psychological needs, including the need for meaning, I am convinced that our nation’s suicide crisis is in part a crisis of meaninglessness. Fully addressing it will require an understanding of how recent changes in American society — changes in the direction of greater detachment and a weaker sense of belonging — are increasing the risk of existential despair.

Empirical studies bear this out. A felt lack of meaning in one’s life has been linked to alcohol and drug abuse, depression, anxiety and — yes — suicide. And when people experience loss, stress or trauma, it is those who believe that their lives have a purpose who are best able to cope with and recover from distress.

Junger’s new book ‘Tribe’ is giving the public exactly the wrong idea about PTSD

BY  | 
  • Sebastian Junger’s book is doing tremendous damage to the public perception of veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide.
  • Most horrifically, Junger claims that there is no relationship between suicide and combat. This ignores a trove of medical, academic, and journalistic evidence that clearly demonstrates that such a relationship exists.

HOW PTSD BECAME A PROBLEM FAR BEYOND THE BATTLEFIELD

  • Though only 10 percent of American forces see combat, the U.S. military now has the highest rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in its history. Sebastian Junger investigates.
  • Israel is arguably the only modern country that retains a sufficient sense of community to mitigate the effects of combat on a mass scale.
  • Another Israeli researcher, Reuven Gal, found that the perceived legitimacy of a war was more important to soldiers’ general morale than was the combat readiness of the unit they were in.
  • Given the profound alienation that afflicts modern society, when combat vets say that they want to go back to war, they may be having an entirely healthy response to the perceived emptiness of modern life.
  • It might also begin to re-assemble a society that has been spiritually cannibalizing itself for generations. We keep wondering how to save the vets, but the real question is how to save ourselves. If we do that, the vets will be fine. If we don’t, it won’t matter anyway.

Corruption: Description and Context

I generally associated the term corruption with illegality.  The Pope identifies a broader definition and context.

Pope Francis: ‘I Am Not Afraid of Sin, I Am Afraid of Corruption’,  by Thomas D. Williams  PH.D.  23 Jan 2018, Breitbart.com

“Corruption – when a person’s conscience no longer registers right and wrong.”

“There is a big difference between corruption and sin, Pope Francis contends, because the sinner can always convert but the corrupt person sees no need for conversion.”

“The corrupt person goes through life taking the shortcuts of opportunism,” said the Pope, “with an air of innocence, wearing the mask of an honest person, which he begins to believe.”

“The corrupt person cannot accept criticism, discredits anyone who criticizes him, tries to belittle any moral authority who would question him, does not value others and insults anyone who thinks differently. If the balance of power permits, he persecutes anyone who contradicts him.”

“Unfortunately, Francis said, the problem is widespread.”

Future of Brown County IN – Part 1

The following post was published in a Guest Column in the Brown County Democrat on Dec 27, 2017 titled:  The role of process in the future of Brown County

The Maple Leaf Music Venue and Performing Arts Center (MLPAC) project and the process used to fast-track approval may represent a turning point for the future of the county. This article is a first in a series that will provide a perspective on our current reality and offer additional options that may contribute to Brown County remaining a desirable place, to live, work, play and visit.

  • To summarize, key points and issues associated with MLPAC include the following:
  • In the April 2017, owners of hotels and inns, who are also appointed to the Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC) and Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) decide to use the revenue collected from the innkeeper’s tax to invest in an asset that will promote tourism. The Innkeeper’s Tax is a pass-through tax paid by the party renting the overnight accommodations.
  • CVC members are appointed by the county commissioners and council. The CVB is a non-profit organization established to manage tourism related promotion on behalf of the CVC.
  • CVC/CVB members decided on a performing arts center and also determined the size, location, scope, cost (12.5 million), and overall governance plan for the facility. Given that this investment is expected to result in overnight stays, their businesses will directly benefit from the investment, and the asset values of their establishments will likely increase.
  • Initially, county citizens were told that revenue from the innkeepers tax would be used to pay the principal and interest on the mortgage for the venue. Any profits were to be used for community and county infrastructure priorities.  The final terms of the deal are that profits would be used to make the mortgage payment and the revenue from the innkeeper’s tax would only be used if profits were not sufficient to make the payment.  This arrangement provides more revenue to fund the expansion of tourism.
  • A common perception in the county that was reinforced by the president of the county council, may be that the revenue from the innkeeper’s tax is “their (CVC) money.” This inaccurate perception may have contributed to a lack of transparency over the years regarding the management and expenditure of these funds.  This revenue, per statute, is a county asset. Commissioners and Council (elected by citizens) appoint CVC members who are subordinate to the citizens and their elected officials.
  • The approval of a 12.5 million dollar loan using the revenue from the innkeeper’s tax as collateral was approved by the commissioners on Nov 15 and the county council on Nov 20. The commissioners approved another resolution approving the project on Dec 20. In case of default, the venue would become the property of the bank, and per the county council president and the county financial consultant, county taxpayers would not be obligated to assume the liability.
  • No public meetings expressly focused on this important project were scheduled by the commissioners or council before their meetings to approve the project. The League of Women Voters of Brown County offered to facilitate a public meeting to address citizen questions, concerns, and issues regarding the project. Members of the CVC, the CVB and the informal team working on the Maple Leaf project declined to participate, as did several key elected officials.
  • The editor of the only newspaper in the county – The Brown County Democrat, did recuse herself from being the primary reporter because of a conflict of interest — her husband serves on the CVC. The Democrat welcomed opposing opinions in Guest Columns and Letters to the Editor.

A government best practice for determining the optimum investment options for revenue from the innkeeper’s tax would be identified in a Comprehensive Plan or an annex to the plan that includes a strategy for tourism.  Such a plan has yet to be developed. A good “plan” includes expected outcomes, actions and milestones, and required resources.

To provide the needed objectivity regarding the feasibility of this project, it was initially suggested by the county attorneys that the County Redevelopment Commission (RDC) become involved which would have helped ensure a thorough review on the feasibility of the project.

The plan by the RDC was to involve all affected government offices to include holding several public meetings to solicit input and feedback from the citizenry.  The process would have included identifying, quantifying and acknowledging opportunity costs and the risks associated with the project  The outcome may have been the same but the public may have had more assurance that the government performed their due diligence.

Before the RDC could hold their first public meeting to discuss their plan, they were told by two of the three commissioners at their July meeting, that their involvement would no longer be needed.  Before the county council approved the project on Nov 20, a member of the council confirmed that they did not commit funding for an independent feasibility study of MLPAC.

Renowned inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller remarked that “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” 

My next article in this series will include two objectives:  Identify likely effects of MLPAC and identify “a new model” of citizen engagement that can result in outcomes where everyone can benefit, or at least, will not be any worse off in the long term.

More Info:  Maple Leaf Project – For the Record

Planning for project success is a choice

The following is a copy of a Guest Column that was expected to be published Nov 15, 2017, in the Brown County Democrat prior to any vote by the Commissioners (Nov 15) and Council Meeting (Nov 20) approving the Maple Leaf Music Venue project. Due to space constraints, the article was published in the Nov 23, 2017, edition which may have been better timing.
The purpose of the column was to reinforce the need for a collaborative approach when considering development projects that can have long-term impacts on the community.

The recent community conversation on the status of the Salt Creek Trail reinforces that using ad-hoc teams to identify and manage projects independent of a county strategy and comprehensive planning can be problematic.

Salt Creek Trail has not been the only County project that has risks that can be eliminated or mitigated through improvements in the planning process.  Without better planning, we will continue to take a reactive “whack a mole” approach as issues bubble to the surface. Current projects include the following:

  • Salt Creek Trail Project, now 15 years in duration, has been delayed due to objections from affected property owners and elected officials opposed to the use of eminent domain by the State of Indiana.
  • Proposed Maple Leaf Music Venue.  This project is expected to be approved by the end of November. The following entities have accepted responsibility and accountability for all project results:  Council, Commissioners, Convention Visitors Commission.  Commissioners accepted the League of Women Voters request to hold a public meeting to address any questions or concerns that citizens may have with the project.
  • County Courthouse Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  This is a critical project to accommodate citizens with challenges, but approved and funded solutions have yet to be identified. Improving security is another important requirement.

Project results – be they good or bad, are determined by processes (habits, approaches) that are used in leading and managing the respective project. An improved process for identifying and managing projects can prevent problems and provide project leaders with the needed support from the community.  Successful projects that meet the expectations of the citizens make a positive contribution to our culture and quality of life.

As a certified quality auditor – now semi-retired, I have conducted and supported performance and process reviews in a wide variety of areas and industries. The scope of projects ranged from improving math skills and management issues in elementary and high schools to assessing compliance of government agencies with financial management controls required by federal and state statutes to improving national defense-related strategies.

Process reviews consist of assessing an organization’s processes (habits, approaches) and their respective capabilities in meeting the needs and expectations of the customer and other stakeholders.  Findings often supported the adage that “If you always do what you always did, on average, you will usually get what you always got” — 99.73% of the time.

In considering needed changes, the overwhelming preference – despite the risks and quality of the outcome, is often to maintain the status quo.  To break the gravitational pull of the old habits, there must be a sense of urgency that change is required to produce the desired result.

Regarding urgency, many rural counties throughout the country including Brown County, face projected declines in the population that contribute to a declining tax base. This decline may require frequent and recurring tax increases and cuts in services unless the situation can be improved.  Indiana counties are funded primarily by property and income tax. New residential and business developments that are supported by the citizenry and will result in increases in the tax base can help mitigate the projected economic decline.

Attracting investors for residential and business developments requires the formulation and updating of a comprehensive (master) plan that reinforces the community vision and values, and includes the immediate and long-range reports and plans necessary to implement the desires of the community. Elements of master planning could include strategies and plans in the following areas:  Broadband (Internet), Trail Systems, Wastewater Treatment, Residential Housing, Land Use, Thoroughfares, Tourism, and Capital Improvements.

With a master plan, community leaders can market the plan to private investors and companies can then use the plan to assess their risks and return on investment to seriously evaluate expansion and growth in Brown County.

To help develop support for the right projects, developments requiring taxpayer funding or other support must be guided by the policies and goals specified in the county comprehensive plan. The current 14-page comprehensive plan was approved in 2012 and provides general guidance concerning the future of Brown County.  Larger counties in Indiana can have more detailed plans that exceed 200 pages. Additional information on this approach is provided by The Indiana Citizens Planners Guide.  Another useful guide for developing effective project management plans and schedules is available from the Project Management Institute.

An immediate and incremental change to supplement the county comprehensive plan with the plans from current projects represents a proven strategy. This change to the status quo will help support elected leaders to maintain required project oversight, engages the citizenry, and ensures the community that actions align with the vision for the county. This change can take us a step forward in building a master plan that will convince potential new residents and investors that Brown County remains a desirable place to live, work, play and invest!

Tim Clark
Brown County