Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Vallejo Example

Okay, so now I'm becoming *that guy* that's yelling about this public sector pay issue on all the local blogs. This snippet below is cut-and-pasted from an article about Vallejo, CA:
Blame Vallejo's politics, dominated by public-sector unions, for the city's sorry fiscal situation. “Police and firefighter salaries, pensions and overtime accounted for 74 percent of Vallejo's $80 million general budget, significantly higher than the state average of 60 percent,” reported a 2009 Cato Institute study. The study highlighted a shocking level of enrichment: pay and benefit packages of more than $300,000 a year for police captains and average firefighter compensation packages of $171,000 a year. Pensions are luxurious: regular public employees can retire at age 55 with 81 percent of their final year's pay guaranteed, come hell or a stock-market crash. Police and fire officials in Vallejo, as in much of California, can retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their final year's pay guaranteed, including cost-of-living adjustments for the rest of their lives and the lives of their spouses. And that's before taking advantage of the common pension-spiking schemes that propel payouts even higher.

When a city spends so much taxpayer money on retirees, it doesn't have much left over for services that might actually benefit the public. That's why Vallejo has been slashing police services and has even warned residents to use the 911 system judiciously. “Since 2005, the number of police officers has dropped from 158 to 104,” a San Francisco Chronicle editorial about Vallejo pointed out recently. “In 2008, Vallejo had a higher violent crime rate than any other comparable city in California.” And it isn't just public safety that has suffered. A 2008 Chronicle article reported on a budget plan that “cuts funding for the senior center, youth groups and arts organizations, to the dismay of residents.” Citizens complain about an increasingly decrepit downtown.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

City Manager @ LDNA: Quick Summary

Last night, CM Bernie Lynch spoke a room of about 15-20 downtowners (and one civic-minded Centralvillean) at the City Building at MCC.

Lynch opened up by stating that this was part of his initiative to get out to meet and greet with each of the neighborhood groups. His goal is to get to each group roughly twice per year to discuss new developments and trends in the city.

While most of his other talks to LDNA (at least, in the two-year memory of this 'grow-in') have focused on the budget, this talk centered more on management.

The shift had to do with the fact that the city's books look better than they have in years past -- the surplus has grown significantly in the past four years (I scribbled the numbers but I won't write them here for fear of likely transcription error), while reserves on hand have shot up more than tenfold in that time.

As Lynch stated, previous actions to streamline the workforce (15% overall cuts) and to improve efficiency have begun to pay off in the form of a rosier financial picture.

The two major improvements that Lynch spoke about were in management and code enforcement. With respect to management, our adoption of software similar to that used in Somerville, Amesbury, and Baltimore, MD has enabled an analyst (Michael Herbert) to catch patterns that direct city resource allocation as well as other facts that otherwise may have slipped through the cracks (like the yet-uncollected fines leading to liens on property that could be worth as much as $250k to the city).

Lynch also spoke in some detail about recent streamlining in city code enforcement, which has cut out previous inefficiencies (such as people needing to drive all around the city to go from office to office for various licenses), and has improved the perception that the licensing process takes place on an uneven playing field.

That perception, he added, is dangerous if it scares off would-be investors in the city. Speaking of which, Lynch talked about several major employers actively looking at mill spaces in which they would place as many as "hundreds" of white-collar jobs.

This Thursday (30 SEP), the unveiling of the latest round of Jeff Speck-inspired proposals for downtown will be unveiled at the Lowell Plan breakfast.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

5Ws for LDNA -- Monday, 27 SEP

Yes, downtowners, after a summer hiatus, it is that time again:

What: Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association September Meeting
When: 7 p.m., Monday 27 SEP 2010
Where: MCC Room / LC109 (1st Floor in City Building, 33 Kearney Square)
Why: To learn about, and discuss, plans for Downtown Lowell
Who: Special Guest, City Manager Bernie Lynch, downtown residents, and any other interested parties

Yup...The Sectors, Again

Last week, I saw yet another op-ed in which the writer pointed out the supposed irony that arises when people who draw paychecks from Uncle Sam complain about excessive government spending.

I'm sensing a double standard here.

If and when a "Wall Street Insider" comes out and criticizes greed, corruption, or whatever other ills befall the most-hallowed sanctums of American capitalism, he is usually lauded for it, sometimes from all sides of the political spectrum. The idea, of course, is that someone who sees the system from "behind the green door" has special knowledge, or access. He is uniquely qualified to speak, and can even be called courageous for it.

With government workers, it shouldn't be hard to see a parallel -- it may be their very familiarity with the system that fuels so much of their strong sentiment. Because they see how incentive structures can get turned upside down in the absence of a profit motive, how incompetence sometimes gets rewarded within bureaucracies, and how the bottom line is often ignored when key decisions are made, their passions are stirred in a way that a counterpart from a private-sector profession can conceptually grasp but won't feel as viscerally.

I'll be the first to admit that I love my public-sector job. I plan to keep at it for another couple decades or so (the part-time side of it, at least). That said, I'm also keenly aware that several of our government budgets on all three levels have been stretched to the breaking point because of steady, annual public sector pay and benefit increases that have occurred even while compensation packages in the private sector have stagnated. The old trade-off about giving up some pay and perks in exchange for the stability and pension promised by government service isn't really the case any longer for many professions and education levels.

And I don't care where you work, who it's for, or whether you even like it -- that ought to scare you a bit.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

For What They're Worth

In the traditional model, a military Reservist or National Guardsman serves roughly one weekend a month and then continuously for a two-week Annual Training period. This gives Uncle Sam some really good bang for the buck, as he still *gets* a servicemember to use during an emergency but for only a tiny fraction of the continuous cost (remember, Uncle Sam is saving here not just on salary, but also on housing and other benefits).

Roughly 10% of that force, however, is made up of "full-timers" who work Monday through Friday in a support capacity to help ensure that everything's ready when it comes time for drill weekend, and to keep the administrative train chugging along the rest of the time.

That number is flexible, though, and is likely to be augmented a bit when a unit is getting ready for a scheduled mobilization. Makes sense, right?

It should. The interesting question that comes up at these times, though, is always how you should allocate your money. If you have a finite pot of dough, you're always going to make tradeoffs -- senior people may offer more expertise and experience, but they come with a heftier price tag, too.

A unit with which I'm familiar is rumored to be bringing two O-5s (that's Lt. Col.) on board, which leads to some inevitable grumbling from on down the chain. The simple math equation says that for the cost of one O-5, you could bring on five E-3s (that's Private First Class). The old morality tale that comes along with this gripe is that senior Officers just sit around drinking coffee, while junior enlisted folk earn their keep by the sweat of their brow. Therefore, only gross negligence or favoritism could allow you to spend your money so foolishly.

Here's the problem with that: Like so many other stark 'right-and-wrong' tales, it ain't necessarily so.

If your unit primarily did maintenance support for helicopters or vehicles, and already had enough manpower towards the top of the food chain, then yes, the additional wrench-turners would be a better use of resources than would the additional desk jockey.

But if your unit was a paper-shuffling staff with a much less blue-collar mission, that logic would start to go out the window. In fact, that additional Colonel might be more valuable to you than would TEN Privates or Specialists.

A Colonel brings decades of experience. Along with that comes knowledge about how to get things done, who to reach out to, and the authority to get others moving on the other end of the line. A Private, by contrast, no matter how industrious, clever, or both, is primarily there to be reactive -- in other words, to take someone else's order. That's wonderful in a cut-and-dry situation where there are clear orders to give and a need for execution, but not necessarily so great when you're talking about the administrative and logistical planning needed to prepare a brigade staff to go overseas.

If you left one of those O-5s in the room for eight hours, with relatively vague guidance about ensuring "unit preparedness," and with full access to e-mail, phones, faxes, etc. he or she very well might be able to get some wheels turning by the end of the day. By contrast, you could put 30 brand-new PV2s right out of boot camp in that same room and not have anything to show for it come quitting time.

Last night, I drove down to Cambridge to meet up with a buddy of mine who runs a multimillion-dollar social entrepreneurialism and web philanthropy business. He is in town to do a couple interviews, and he explained his "1:3:10" rule to me like this: "Your basic, decent employee is going to give you an output level that we'll baseline at '1.' Someone who stands out as being really good -- not necessarily blow-your-hair-back amazing, but a clear cut above the mean -- will put out an output roughly triple the first person. Then, within your organization you'll have a handful of true all-stars...these people's output value is going to be roughly 10 times that of the average, run-of-the-mill employee."

The way most organizations' compensation structures work, it's not usually possible to reward that last group with ten times the dough that the first group gets. In some clear cases (i.e. movie stars or professional athletes) it's that clear-cut, but those are definitely the exceptions, not the rule. In many of those places, then, it's more likely than not that the truly stellar engineers, programmers, mid-level managers, and salespeople are actually underpaid relative to *true-value output.* To use a sports analogy, the people with the most favorable "+/-" statistics may be the least fairly compensated. The straphangers who fall somewhere towards the bottom in pay, but even further towards the bottom in +/-, by contrast, could be getting a freer ride.

I could try to explain this to the next person who tells me what a crime it is that for one good-for-nuthin', fat cat Major, a unit could bring on three squared-away, hard-charging E-4s, but I think the argument would fall on deaf ears.

You, by contrast, have made it this far. Thanks for hanging in there -- now get back to work and earn your keep!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Calling Hours: PJ Johnson

Below is an excerpt from an e-mail forward I just received:

With the unfortunate tragic loss of Officer PJ Johnson, his father would like for everyone to know that his wake is on Wednesday from 3-8PM at Dolan Funeral Home, 106 Middlesex St., N. Chelmsford and his funeral is Thursday, 9AM at St. John The Evangelist Church, 115 Middlesex St., N. Chelmsford.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hey, There's an Election On!

I just want to remind everyone that Tuesday, 14 SEP, is primary day.

With work demands (and work-related travel demands) spiraling up and away, I've sort of faded away from the Sam Meas campaign, but the best source for updates from the campaign is Renee Aste's resurgent End of Nihilism. From the Democratic side of the house, there's plenty of time to get caught up on the Doherty-Donoghue race at either Left in Lowell or richardhowe.

Whatever your political persuasion, or lack thereof, Tuesday is a chance for you to exercise your voice and influence.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Do Friends Owe the "Heads-Up?"

Before you even read this entry, just admit something -- at some point in your life, you've heard about a friend of yours passing through your *area* without letting you know, and you threw down the "WTF" flag, even if it was just to yourself.

Well, I figured I'd titled enough entries with "If Life Had a Rulebook" that it might be time to vary things up a bit.

The other day I was talking to a friend who lives in the Greater NYC area. I had been planning to visit the area and see this person, but was ultimately unable to do so based on the State Active Duty (SAD) mobilization for a Hurricane that never really hit Massachusetts, other than to dump what I'm told was six inches of rain on Martha's Vineyard last Friday.

Anyway, this friend asked about another mutual friend of ours, and sort of lamented that while he was reasonably certain that the mutual friend had been in the general New York area at several points over the past few years, he had never been given the "heads-up." I've also seen this phenomenon described in some articles about the perils of online social networking -- if you're constantly making a photojournal of your life and displaying it to everyone who knows you, you're inevitably going to torque some people who see you were in their area but didn't pass them a "battlespace entry notification."

This raises an interesting question: Do friends owe it to each other to pass the word when they are going to be in each others' general operating area?

After a lot of deliberation and attempts to see this from all sides, my answer is a resounding NO.

There are just too many variables here, and too high of a likelihood that a simple notification passed with the best intentions will lead to gross overcomplication.

A lot of times, if your travel is either work-related (like my current trip to Killeen, Texas, where I'm typing this right now), or personal but pointed (i.e. visiting your in-laws) you're not able to veer too far off course. Chances are, your itinerary is jam-packed enough without adding in other potential twists. That friend of mine in Austin isn't really that far away, but after a long day of running around, doing whatever is required job-wise, the LAST thing I feel like doing after 6 p.m. is adding anything else in -- I'll be quite happy with a quick dinner, some TV, and some restful sleep before doing it all again the next day.

I know I usually hem-and-haw on questions like this, but what gives me the confidence to answer so resoundingly is a simple application of the Golden Rule. Someone I consider a good friend, even though I hadn't seen him in more than five years, was just up in Lowell for my wedding. His girlfriend just finished graduate school in Cambridge, and her family is from Salem, NH. In relative terms, that might as well be next door to me. However, in catching up with him, it didn't even occur to me to harangue him about why-hadn't-he-given-me-a-shout or any such nonsense -- if he's driven all the way up here to see his girlfriend or her family, I think he's got plenty more on his plate! Ditto for another Eastern Seaboard friend of mine whose wife hails from the Merrimack Valley-- as much as I would love to catch up, and as much as I can reasonably assume that he and his wife have been "up this way" it would be an obnoxious overstatement of my own importance to assume he owed me some notification.

Just to tie the whole thing up -- my recent sojourn down to New York (yup, the one that never happened because I was in Reading, waiting for vehicles and equipment to return on Saturday) nearly got bogged down in a ridiculous logistical snafu for this very reason. Though originally planning to visit for a mate's 30th birthday, I passed the word on to some other friends whose tastes tend to be champagne and caviar to our Miller Genuine Draft and franks. Needless to say, the entire thing could have been a cluster-you-know-what when they started talking about fancy-pants dinner reservations and detailed plans.

My learning point for the future?

Next time, I'll just keep it simple.

Monday, September 6, 2010

We Have Met the Enemy...and it is NOT PowerPoint

Just over a week ago, Jack Mitchell sent me this link about a Col. Lawrence Sellin, deployed on a staff in Kabul, Afghanistan who was fired for writing a rant that was not first cleared through the Public Affairs Office.

The rant isn't all that long, but if you're like me, and you usually don't follow links in blogs or in e-mails, I figured I could throw you a few paragraphs:
Officially, International Joint Command was founded in late 2009 to coordinate operations among all the regional commands in Afghanistan. More likely it was founded to provide some general a three-star command. Starting with a small group of dedicated and intelligent officers, IJC has successfully grown into a stove-piped and bloated organization, top-heavy in rank. Around here, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel.

For headquarters staff, war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information. Even one tiny flaw in a slide can halt a general’s thought processes as abruptly as a computer system’s blue screen of death.
I think if you *get* the Colonel's frustration, you understand that he's part of a large staff of people who stay very busy 12-18 hours a day but don't necessarily accomplish much.

We've heard it all before, but that duddn't make it any less true -- where there are Generals and Admirals, there tend to be large staffs. In large bureaucracies like the Army, things tend to get very, well, bureaucratic. The Colonel's writing puts a modern spin on things, and his spot-on humorous style reminds me that while the post-9/11 "Next-Greatest Generation" has produced many things, we still haven't coughed up a Joseph Heller or a Kurt Vonnegut.

I'm not losing my patience, though -- that could take a while.

Many have misinterpreted Sellin's remarks by calling them "The PowerPoint Rant" or somehow identifying PowerPoint as the culprit for what's wrong with the bureaucratic way of thinking (or, all too often, the lack thereof).

I'm going to sort of shout this now, and I will undoubtedly return to it in future entries: "POWERPOINT is NOT THE PROBLEM!"

A boring briefer is a boring briefer is a boring briefer. If he's using acetate and an overhead projector, he would be just as boring. Heck, if he were using a chalkboard and notes written on 3 x 5 cards, and were rambling on incoherently for an hour, I wouldn't be getting ready to cut back on chalk and notecards.

A good speaker knows his audience. He moves swiftly, he senses the mood of the room, and he adapt accordingly. No matter the crowd in front of him, he can always liven up the material by involving the *students* in his class.

Conversely, as I wrote about in my summary of the NGAUS conference in Texas, any time a speaker goes on for too long, uninterrupted (one hour is the breaking point for most people), he's going to lose his audience.

That has nothing to do with the software being used.

In addition to what Col. Sellin wrote, I've seen other writing come out recently that criticizes the military's reliance on PowerPoint. As a reaction to that, people feel the need now to start every presentation with, "Sorry for this death-by-PowerPoint that's coming," or "Sorry to have to subject you to more PowerPoint, but..."

Notwithstanding my dislike for the casual use of 'sorry,' the speaker isn't addressing how ELSE the information might be presented. And because it incorporates a lot more multimedia than say, an overhead projector with hand-scribbled notes, I'm inclined to say PowerPoint is actually a GOOD thing.

PowerPoint should be no less a substitute for thinking than any other form of media. But if our real problem is people not thinking creatively, or not demanding more thorough analysis, or not asking more from the briefers updating the General, let's not blame the medium.

Things could be just as bad if we were operating in the same thoughtless way, but expressed it through stick figures with rocks on the walls of caves.

I'm even willing to say that might be a whole lot worse!