Good Work: Bureaucracy Busting Starts With a Positive Presupposition

I watched Rhode Island Commissioner Deb Gist in action yesterday, first on television answering tough questions from a panel of reporters then speaking to and interacting with a conference of educators.  She is struggling with the limitations of an old bureaucracy while helping her colleagues invent the future.  She set’s the vision, outlines the challenges, encourages collaboration, and does it all with unusual grace and charm.
Spending a day with Gist talking about barriers to learning reminded me of the crazy rules I found as a new superintendent.  For example, high school students in my district were not allowed to take aspirin at school without a doctor’s note.  At one point there was probably a good reason for the policy but when I asked why no one could remember.  Our district, like most big organizations, had too many rules.
Public bureaucracies are created to carry out the public good but they take on a life of their own often creating a disdain for the public they serve.  Policies, procedures, and behaviors sometimes appear to presume ignorance and irresponsibility on the part of staff and customers.   Simple efforts to mitigate risk and eliminate exceptions are often communicated with contempt.  Even after an extensive rewrite, our district policy manual contained several inches of policies that subject the 90% of responsible students and parents to humiliating and frustrating procedures, forms and layers of required authorization.  Staff members and customers become skeptical, distrustful, and resentful.  It’s an ugly spiral.

Deborah Gist

Building an effective organization begins with positive presuppositions about customers and coworkers.  As school administrators that means respecting parents as the primary decision makers for their son or daughter’s education.  It means a positive presupposition that they are doing the best that they can. No longer does a commitment to all students mean providing a one-size-fits all education—it requires options as diverse as our communities.
It is difficult to take a bureaucracy apart.  Over time, every law and policy develops its own constituency and administrative structure to insures compliance.  It takes courage to propose devolution of power, to build trust with constituents, and persistence in implementation.  Few politicians are successful with such an agenda because the cumulative dissatisfaction with the status quo must reach a level much greater than the focused resistance that can be expected.
Think of the restaurants that don’t second guess your substitutions, or the stores that don’t hassle you when you return something, or the mechanic that doesn’t treat you like an idiot; all of these organizations have built positive presuppositions into the way they do business.  It is easy to find a few positive people, but difficult to bring trust to scale.
Gist is the Facebook chief–she uses social media to engage her state and colleagues.  She is open and positive.  She presumes that answers can be created through dialog.  She respects and challenges her colleagues simultaneously. It looks like her positive presupposition has earned the benefit of the doubt.
Good Work is a Sunday series about finding and doing mission-related work.  We’d be happy to hear your story about good work.  

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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