The TASC List: Effecting change

Every organization finds it difficult to change course, introduce modified behaviors, and bring about new approaches. The very momentum that propels it along acts to maintain the factors in play, the methods and procedures that it follows, and the habits it has developed.

But organizations are dynamic things, and certain influences can be introduced to redirect their results and improve their outcomes. Often a top-down methodology may prove workable. Here’s one example that did not.

Ken Feinberg is America’s renowned arbitration expert and conflict resolution specialist. He was the special master designated to dispense the millions of dollars from the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund. His remarkable judgments and focus may be seen in the small but important book What is Life Worth? He administered the awards under the One Fund Boston, intended for victims of the marathon bombings. When appointed czar to reduce excessive executive compensation within the structure of firms receiving financial bailout assistance from the government through taxpayer burden, he was not able to achieve the intended outcome. By way of explanation he offered this sort of lesson learned:

You can ask the CEO to reduce the compensation for key management and explain why that is important to his firm and the national economy. You can provide him (or her) with the arguments, pros and cons, talking points, and supporting material for the discussions at hand. But you cannot make them do it (cut pay; exchange dollar compensation for company shares) — unless they actually want to do it. And in that Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) follow-on, they didn’t want to.

Similar situations exist on the American education scene today. District superintendents, who are the CEOs of their particular enterprise, do not in general have strong incentives to save dollars. According to Dr. Armand A. Fusco, nationally recognized expert on the analysis of school operations, “…there is no ‘bottom line’… because, with rare exception, there is always more money provided every year regardless of productivity or results.”

Cost consideration is rarely discovered in school documentation. Dr. Fusco continues “… in job descriptions it would be unusual to find mention that an employee is responsible for controlling and cutting cost; in addition, it is not part of any evaluation process or even as a policy statement.”

Thus, the school “CEO” is not generally focused on what concerns the average taxpayer, and reports to no real authority figure who can make “tell” demands or inject strong counsel. The management structure from the Board of Education is primarily oriented toward advice, support and strategic guidance. As with Mr. Feinberg, one can offer all the rationale and reason for taking a responsible action, but if the individual does not want to, the execution will not happen.

Dr. Fusco found an important exception “…in the Ann Arbor, Mich. superintendent’s job description, that if copied … would have a powerful and meaningful impact on fiscal accountability.”  Three ingredients of the overall approach follow.

1) The superintendent will diligently identify opportunities to reduce costs and improve operating efficiency, is charged with the responsibility to seek ways to reduce costs and improve efficiency, and will provide guidelines to support constant and continual improvement in the organization, as well as ensuring that promotion of savings will be part of every employee’s and department’s yearly evaluation.

2) The Board of Education must adopt a policy that will clearly establish a culture of fiscal accountability, not fail to act as a good fiduciary for all taxpayer assets, nor fail to maintain procedures and systems to control management of resources.

3) All key management shall pledge verbally and in writing that it is their duty and obligation to manage all physical, human, and financial resources in the most effective, efficient, economical, and ethical manner possible.

These are important considerations and especially timely for Wilton as a new superintendent enters the scene. TASC wishes Dr. Kevin Smith a smooth and orderly transition, and a productive, results-oriented assignment. We would be most pleased to assist his efforts, and to offer existing work on best policies and practices to him in the search for change and savings in school spending.

TASC stands for Toward A Stronger Community. Information: