Connecting state and local government leaders
‘Leadership Matters’ focuses on improving culture and performance in local public institutions in the Ocean State dealing with challenging fiscal conditions.
Rhode Island has seen more than its share of budget-related challenges, from a vastly underfunded public pension program to actual and barely-avoided municipal bankruptcies. For officials trying to manage the problems, stress levels have been high. But now, stakeholders in some of the Ocean State’s cities and other public institutions have found a glimmer of hope for a better future in an unusual program promoting savings and better performance of public functions.
Called “Leadership Matters” and housed at Salve Regina University in Newport, the program puts officials through 64 hours of learning, requires them to pursue an innovative project, and then follows up with on-site coaching by experts in public sector performance.
As a result, the city of Pawtucket is reforming its financial management and human resources systems, said Mayor Don Grebien, and is cooperating much more closely, thus reducing friction, with the city’s independent school district. The school district itself has used lessons from the program to reinvent its approach to school suspension rates—greatly reducing the problem, said Superintendent Patti DiCenso, who participated herself, along with top staff, in the training program.
The city of Newport, site of world-famous jazz and folk festivals and ocean-racing events, has reformed the convoluted process it has used to generate approvals for events required from up to 10 city agencies. That’s made it easier for city officials to get required paperwork to the city council, though event sponsors do not yet have access to the online system, said Fire Chief Pete Connerton, who has been leading the reforms.
Bristol has also benefitted from the leadership program, according to officials there. They have dubbed their initiative “The Bristol Approach to Excellence,” describing it, in a June 6 announcement, as a “new program devised to keep department heads and citizens more updated on the progress of current town projects.” Middletown has been a participant as well, implementing what it calls “a municipal customer service model.”
Training is always hard to finance in the public sector, so the Leadership Matters program stands out as one that has so far succeeded in assembling enough money to proceed. But full funding of the program appears increasingly difficult, as federal, state and city training funds remain on the decline.
Most likely, the Leadership Matters program has attracted support because it focuses more on performance improvement than on traditional training. Veterans of public sector training initiatives stressed in interviews that many programs have little or no follow-up and no institutional structure in which lessons can be nurtured and encouraged to flourish. Leadership Matters has insisted on engaging top-level officials like Grebien, DiCenso and Connerton, and encouraged them to bring along a few key aides, believing that these leaders will then cascade the skills they’ve learned to deeper levels of their organizations. The requirement that each team develop an innovation project is another unusual feature of the program, as is the “phase two” coaching and mentoring by program staff.
The historian David Hackett Fischer, author of “Albion’s Seed,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “Washington’s Crossing,” and “Champlain’s Dream,” says that great accomplishments are most often the product of small teams. In a recent lecture I attended, he cited the founding of Acadia National Park as one example.
His principle applies in the case of Leadership Matters, whose founder, Georgianna Bishop, developed close ties with a few key people in Rhode Island who helped get the program off the ground.
Bishop herself is a deeply committed believer in the value of training in the public sector. She spent many years in the federal government, working in the Boston office of the Environmental Protection Agency, but at the same time promoting ideas she believed would enhance the performance of agencies across the federal spectrum.
Years ago, she got interested in the work of Peter Senge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Senge’s 1990 book, “The Fifth Discipline,” advocated a “systems thinking” approach to attacking management challenges, and his ideas developed a huge following in the private sector. Bishop wanted to spread the same approach to problems in the public sector. These ideas were gaining currency among federal training officials, in part because of a five-page article by writer Brian Friel in the October 2003 edition of Government Executive. Friel described initiatives in wildfire control, NASA, the Defense Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Cancer Institute and the Food and Drug Administration to adopt a more “systems” approach to issues they faced. Bishop to this day hands Friel’s piece out to Leadership Matters participants as a text to study.
About 10 years ago, Bishop incorporated the Public Sector Consortium to advance these kinds of ideas. For years before that, the effort was a “community of practice” she’d started among federal agencies in which people interested in leadership development and performance improvement would get together, often by phone from around the country, to discuss how useful disciplines could be spread in the federal sector.
Little headway was made in the federal government, despite the appointment of chief learning officers and performance improvement officials in the agencies. These officials were buried under layers of bureaucracy, and therefore did not command the attention of the most senior officials. And training funding was in a 15-year decline, accelerated when the federal budget “sequester” forced agency cutbacks beginning in 2013.
In 2006, the community of practice became the non-profit Public Sector Consortium. It is tiny, has no regular source of funding, and is run out of Bishop’s basement in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We had no office space, no money, no content and perhaps it might have seemed a fool’s errand at the time,” Bishop said. The nonprofit operates on about $70,000 a year, according to board member Kirke Harper, enough to help pay for the services of highly qualified instructors.
Frustrated with lack of progress at the federal level, Bishop decided to take her work to other sectors. She had a stroke of good fortune when she was introduced to James M. Ludes, who had come from a career in the federal government to run the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University in Newport. He and Sister Jane Gerety, president of Salve Regina, became supporters of Bishop’s efforts.
Consulting for government entities is often the province of public affairs schools like Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, whose faculties boast PhDs and learned books. Bishop and her fellow instructors are more practitioners and consultants than academics, and this appealed to Ludes.
“I have a PdD,” he said, “but it’s really not needed for this. Some of the smartest people in the world are equipped with experience that is just as solid as any piece of parchment.”
Ludes continued: “Georgie’s career, her work at EPA, gave her credibility, and she had great commitment to her ideas. Her emphasis on facilitated, not directive, styles of management, resonated with me. And systems thinking did as well.”
The “dream” he and Bishop share for teaching these approaches ranges “far beyond Rhode Island,” Ludes said. But Rhode Island offered a good starting point: “Thirty-nine cities and towns within an hour of each other, so we could meet with everyone and make the case.”
How It Works
The program designed by the Pell Center and the Public Sector Consortium is aimed, its descriptive materials say, at “current and rising leaders in elected office, local and state government, academic and non-profit institutions and community groups.”
In Phase 1, institutions send teams of four individuals led by a mayor, city manager, school superintendent or other ranking leader, for eight days of training over five months. Classroom instruction “features practical instruction and practice of skills in facilitative leadership; systems thinking, negotiation; and aligning systems for high-performance outcomes.”
In Phase 2, participants create innovation project teams to tackle persistent problems such as Newport’s event-permitting system. Budgets permitting, consultants working for Leadership Matters go on-site to “coach, critique, encourage and advise.”
Phase 3 consists of an annual conference at the Pell Center to review lessons learned and to help Rhode Island leaders build “a culture of collaboration and mutual support across communities.”
Bishop also leads monthly conference calls during which participants from all jurisdictions can share their thoughts.
Budgets to support these efforts have been cobbled together from the PSC’s own fund-raising, grants from a state training fund and from the Rhode Island Foundation, fees from participating institutions and other sources. Participating institutions pay $2,500 per attendee for the 64 hours of training.
The Program’s Results
Harper, who was a top-ranking leadership training official in the federal government, observed in an interview that Rhode Island offered both a lot of need and a lot of challenges to Leadership Matters. Much of the municipal public sector was “in absolute poverty,” he observed, as tax bases had shrunk along with the fortunes of textiles, fishing, fish processing and other businesses. Indeed, the town of Central Falls went bankrupt in 2011.
Grebien, taking office in the adjacent city of Pawtucket the same year, was also facing the financial abyss. The municipal government at the time had a structural deficit of around $12-14 million, he said in an interview. In business, Grebien had been involved in supply chain management, with an emphasis on metrics, and so the performance-enhancement tools Ludes and Bishop offered appealed to him.
“Timing is everything,” he said. “We were hurting. Maybe they could help us.” He inherited, he said, an entrenched culture whose typical response was: “This is the way we’ve always done it and we see no reason for change.”
Grebien signed up for the 64 hours of training, choosing to bring his top assistant, his finance director and one person not on his staff—the newly appointed finance director for the Pawtucket school system.
They chose to work on their financial technology systems, which were lagging far behind modern standards. The old system couldn’t provide useful data and as a result, city and school leaders were often at odds, the former charging schools with overspending, and the latter complaining that the city wasn’t contributing enough to educating its children. “The two finance directors agreed on a common financial software package—that was our innovation project,” Grebien said. Now, about five years later, the city and the schools share one IT director—and are moving to do the same with a new human resources professional.
Pawtucket School Superintendent DiCenso credits the Leadership Matters program with helping to facilitate the IT merger. The merger represented a “heavy risk” for the school district, she said, because of the system’s “huge institutional needs” to serve students and teachers. The training “helped us understand that we are not separate entities, and we developed a more open attitude,” DiCenso said—working to leave behind a “very myopic educational culture.” Other Rhode Island jurisdictions have tried but failed in similar merger attempts, she added.
“We were not good at understanding the idea of ‘end users,’” the superintendent said. “It’s not a term used in education. But Georgie helped us see that our end users are not just students and teachers, but also parents, community agencies and businesses. We understand better how the public schools can help the future of Pawtucket, educating high-performing, good citizens who can make it a better place to live.” DiCenso said she is working to communicate these ideas to her principals and to secretaries who have to deal with irate parents on the phone.
One significant initiative DiCenso has undertaken has been to reform the district’s systems for dealing with school suspensions that not only affects students’ learning but also disrupts families’ lives. Steps she has taken have greatly reduced the magnitude of the problem.
In Newport, improvements to the permitting system were the lead item in the PSC’s May 5 press release about the city’s use of the learning program. The changes produced “a yearly savings of over $44,000 in staff hours,” said the release. This seemed somehow less significant than other changes in city practices—especially since Connerton said the savings did not reduce city spending but rather freed up staffers to perform other tasks. Bishop suggested that the larger story, impossible to quantify in the short term, has been a greater sense of teamwork among many municipal employees. And a committee was formed to give city hall a fresher look and more welcoming mien.
Over time, small steps—like Middletown’s pothole tracking initiative—can make a real difference in service and in citizens’ regard for their government, Bishop and others involved with the program say.
Salve Regina, host to the program, has demonstrated its belief in the benefits of Leadership Matters by sending its own cohorts of participants.
The Program’s Future
Leadership Matters has a lot going for it in Rhode Island, most notably the strong support of the Pell Center and the good reviews it gets from the public sector leaders who have participated over the past few years.
Grebien has become a proselytizer for the program. As current chair of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, he has brought Ludes and others in to “explain the value” of Leadership Matters to the group, he reported. And he attended a July 13 meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to explain the program to Bay State mayors, including those from Salem and Burlington. The mayor of Braintree has already taken the Leadership Matters two-day systems thinking course, and, says Bishop, “is intent on participating” further.
Despite its modest cost, financing is a continuing issue for the Leadership Matters program. Bishop is certainly sensitive about it. Asked about fees for participants, she at first resisted, saying in an e-mail message: “Do you want us to expose the costs in a climate that does not value investment in public leadership? This is exactly what I was worried about.”
Federal training grants, which helped defray DiCenso’s costs, are drying up. An $11.6 million state community service fund that had given a modest grant to help Leadership Matter was abruptly cut in half in June, in the wake of a scandal that forced the resignation of Rhode Island House Finance Committee Chairman Ray Gallison.
Newport was fortunate to have its former city manager set aside funding for two cohorts, but now she is gone after a bitter dispute with one member of the City Council, and so continued funding may be an issue. DiCenso observes that “funding is always tight in school districts,” and says that “this year will be a little harder” to find money for Leadership Matters, but she seems determined to continue.
Grebien is budgeting funds for the next round of Leadership Matters, beginning in September at the Pell Center. The budgeting challenge is largely about “perception,” he says; “residents don’t see the value. But it is easy to forget how important it is to invest in ourselves and our employees.”
Ludes says the “biggest challenge” to the program is financial. But enough money has been raised to finance this fall’s training program at the Pell Center. And Leadership Matters has developed enough support among influencers in Rhode Island to have a good shot at continuing over the long term in its drive to improve the performance of public institutions.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct information related to the city of Pawtucket. Instead of student absenteeism, the school district there was looking for a new approach to school suspensions.
TImothy B. Clark is Editor at Large with Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is a fellow and former board member with the National Academy of Public Administration.