TASC List: Organizational disconnect

Sometimes an enterprise loses its way as it attempts to grow and absorb the changes around it. Sometimes it fragments and slips into dysfunctional behavior, despite the best efforts of those who would guide and nourish it toward more productive outcomes. And sometimes the organization buries its head in the sand and simply plows ahead, refusing to consider what advisers, elected officials in responsible positions, and others who are stakeholders, might suggest as a preferred course or recommended change.
There are many institutions that, when advised to pursue better paths, and are given all the tools to execute required change, defy logic by continuing along in a business-as-usual manner. When Kenneth Feinberg, the government’s Special Master for Executive Compensation accepted the task of narrowing the gap between what corporate executives and average employees make (at one time that ratio was 275 times), he knew the sledding would be tough. But the discouraging outcome could be summarized this way. You can explain the rationale for an important recommendation, its expected benefits, and gain acceptance for its overall value. You can offer the charts and graphs that display its factors, merits, and compelling trends. You can present the persuasive talking points to accompany a presentation. And you can provide the answers to the questions that may arise. What you cannot do is make them execute it, if they really don’t want to.
That kind of response generally defines a disconnected organization. You can’t tell them what to do. In corporate America today and in the era of “too big to fail,” they are prodded, protected, examined by enforcement authorities, and subject to shareholder outrage — all at the same time. They exist in another and special culture of entitlement.
Here in Wilton we have a Board of Education and a school district. Are they disconnected, and perhaps exist within a special culture of their own? Who actually manages, regulates or controls the board and its chairman? We may ask the same questions about the office of the superintendent.
We know who does not exercise such authorities. Neither the Board of Finance nor the Board of Selectman can tell, direct, or demand. They ask only, give advice, or express concern. They expect that an existing set of policies and practices, and other guidelines, specify the boundaries and limitations in which these two entities may operate for the entire education process.
They expect when things go wrong, as they sometimes do, that there are clearly spelled-out rules for behavior, articulated roles and responsibilities, detailed procedures and norms, as well as remedies, recoveries, reprimands, and relief. But if all this does not in fact exist, what can the population of users and stakeholders, and in particular the citizen-taxpayers do when it appears that something is in error, unlawful, or unwise?
As Feinberg found out, the answer is very little. If they don’t want to do it, they won’t. After 30 years of budget increases the education apparatus lumbers along, believing that a zero increase this year takes them over the goal line; they’ve declared victory again in the face of a genuine fiscal crisis, and despite some clear and continuing guidance to reduce the budget.
Ah, but there is one solution. They work for us. We pay their salaries and finance their workplace and available resources. We may not be able to construct their performance plans (where such might actually exist) or establish their objectives, or take them to task. But we can influence their operating boundaries, force them to consider measurable progress and productivity, and set them on the path toward real cost effectiveness.
We can do all those things not by sending idle messages and soft signals. We can simply vote “No, Too High” on the size of the budget in overwhelming numbers. That will serve to repair the existing disconnect.

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community.
Contact: brennerjoe@aol.com.