I was talking about good governance with an elected official, a member of a city council. “What do you do to encourage good governance?” I asked him.
“I ask people what’s going on. I ask employees at all different levels how they’re doing. That’s how I find out which departments are well managed, and which are not.”
“Really?” I asked. “Is that how you spend your time?”
“I think that’s why the people elected me – to find out what’s going on.” He said the city charter permitted him to “get whatever information he wanted from whomever he wanted.” He could call a parks employee, ask why the grass hadn’t been watered, and expect the employee to tell him.
“Who would let the city manager know?” I asked.
“It’s not my job to tell the city manager,” said he said. “I assume the employee will tell him.”
“But couldn’t that lead to chaos?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What about determining the overall direction of the city, and setting long-term policy, and setting performance goals for the city. Isn’t that the city council’s role?”
“We don’t have performance measures,” he replied.
“Well, that explains a lot.” I smiled. “Listen, you have no formal feedback mechanisms. So you’ve had to go out and invent your own. I can understand that.”
He nodded. “Do you know how I measure whether the streets are being cleaned? I put a newspaper in the gutter and then check a day later to see if it is still there.”
Imagine what would happen, I said, if the city council did define performance measures. “Then you could focus on measuring performance, not as individuals inventing your own measures, but using agreed-upon measures. That would create alignment at the top – and lead to a clear understanding of everyone’s role.”
The city councilman grinned. “That would be a good trick.” He said his goodbyes and left.
Yes, I thought to myself. It is a good trick.