Category: Governance

Disrupting the Status Quo: Breaking Nervousness in the Public Sector

As an ambitious and high-performing professional, “wait your turn”, “keep your head down and do your work” were the normative phrases. I sometimes had to “code switch” just to fit in.

My vociferous nature and ambitions, I believe, have prevented me from progressing and succeeding in my career. Seeing how my black peers have had difficult experiences navigating the “system”, I have set out on my own journey to figure out why. I just may have the answer.

This coronavirus pandemic and increased racial tensions have brought to the light the racial, social and economic gaps that have been discussed, but never taken seriously. The longstanding inequities include health disparities, lack of high quality education and violence. The highest amount of COVID deaths are from people of colour in cities. As Helene Gayle, the CEO of Chicago Community Trust stated in a recent webinar, “if the general population catches a cold, communities of colour catch pneumonia”.

Navigating the public sector for the majority of my career has been challenging. From academic interests in regional governance and affordable housing to spatial mismatch and reverse commuting in transit, my career has spanned years in multiple jurisdictions in planning and policy but never really focused on my true love of applying social equity to those areas. There has been a nervousness that has led to policy inaction and/or status quo decision making that must end. I set out to make the case for a disruption.

Disrupt or Interrupt?

In the public sector space, where change is rather slow and methodical, I am in agreement with Dr. Amante-Jackson in that there needs to be a disruption. The housing and transit industries have already seen it with AirBnb (although pretty much dead in the water now), and with micromobility. With health and social inequities being exacerbated due to the Coronavirus pandemic, a disruption is literally inevitable.

Should policy makers and public sector managers disrupt inequity or should they want to interrupt it? That was the question Dr. Damisa Amante-Jackson posed in a recent Hello Monday podcast.

Interrupting, as Dr. Amante-Jackson states, is about advocacy to consider policies and practices, naming things, but not necessarily going to shift the policies to create and industry standard and to hold people accountable. For disruption to be successful, the required mindset change is for people to be successful in giving feedback and being able to have those difficult conversations. It is naming the elephants in the room. Disruption is an end to inequity.

Nervousness in Government

In order to disrupt the public sector, the elephant in the room is nervousness that Susan T. Gooden spoke of in her book Race and Social Equity, A Nervous Area of Government. From those aforementioned policies and procedures to delivering on diversity and inclusion by not just “checking the boxes”, public servants and managers, need to have those deep uncomfortable conversations. This does not mean being reactionary but by doing the deep work, asking the questions and acting on it.

Gooden explained this nervousness in government as it pertains to the conceptualization of racial and social equity is grounded in the application of organizational justice. The issues involving organizational justice involve some person or group benefitting or harmed in a manner that is unfair.

My experiences from a human resources context have concentrated on equality, not equity. Such as recruitment, onboarding, compensation, and attrition. Gooden suggests that understanding the nervousness of government involves an approach that is more systemic instead of that of organizational justice. It prioritizes lived experiences of the public it serves, which is a theme I’ve mentioned in my previous blog posts time and again. She referred to this as public justice and is defined as the larger organizational value where social equity resides. Where public justice is value oriented, social equity is more concerned with the delivery of public services.

Throughout Gooden’s book, she provides examples related to the American experience of structural and institutional racism to the nervousness in government, our Canadian experiences, although more muted, are just as relatable.

Conquering Nervousness in Government

Gooden sets out by listing ten principles in conquering nervousness in government. They are:

  1. Public Administrators have a responsibility to operate in the nervousness of government.
    Examining issues of racial equity, which is one such area in the nervousness of government, public service delivery is fundamental in understanding how public sector institutions systematically provides services in structural ways that influence important outcomes.
  2. The legal history of racial discrimination is an important context that cannot be minimized, but rather offers instructive guidance.
    Zoning regulations and planning policies that are general in nature are perfect examples where practices that may appear race neutral would have important implications.
  3. Initial motivators to begin navigation of nervousness typically include some combination of political, moral, legal, and/or economic triggers.
    Gordon referred to the Seattle Race and Social Justice Network which was politically motivated. I touched upon the need to include social equity within transit service standards which included a mention of King County Metro in a earlier blog post. Legal areas include laws, regulation and court decisions. Economic triggers that would advance racial equity could include cost-benefit analyses or improved organizational dimensions that Dr. Amante-Jackson referred to in disrupting the status quo or. With recent societal shifts triggered by both the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter, they will definitely wield pressure on organizational structures.
  4. Senior leadership is a critical important factor in realized sustained progress.
    This reminded me of the book Leaders in the Shadows, a book by David Siegel about the diverse leadership styles of several Canadian city managers and Chief Administrative Officers. While the leaders in the book deserve credit, they weren’t innovative. They were emblematic of the systems they led, each had opportunities to promote racial and social equity within their municipal organizations. The model of a new leader should be at the forefront of significant organizational change, define its culture, and “establishes clear norms and expectations of racial equity performance and accountability”.
  5. At the individual level, public servants  must recognize and eliminate behaviours that impede racial equity progress.
    As Gordon notes, the individual baseline level of nervousness should provide an indicator of how likely or unlikely a public administrator is to independently promote racial equity in the provision of government services at work. Currently the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s Principal of Values nor the Canadian Institute of Planners Code of Professional Conduct do not mention anything to the lines of racial and social equity, which cover public and private sector services. The American Society of Public Administration includes a statement in their Code of Ethics on social equity.
    4. Strengthen social equity. Treat all persons with fairness, justice, and equality and respect individual differences, rights, and freedoms. Promote affirmative action and other initiatives to reduce unfairness, injustice, and inequality in society.
    Racial equity progress should not only be from overarching professional bodies, but also the municipalities they represent. Also, there should be strategies in place to place increased emphasis on the role that social identities play in the delivering and administration of public services.
  6. At the organizational level, government agencies should evaluate their socialization boundaries and extend them to accommodate a wider range of racial equity work.
    Employees should have the freedom to venture into the “nervous” area whereby there are cultural redefinition of acceptable boundaries that can easily accommodate racial equity work through a reduction of fear.
  7. There are no perfect solutions; however, solutions that embody a race-conscious approach most directly facilitate structural equity solutions.
    The engagement of solutions designed to facilitate racial equity must directly confront the issue of race. As John Powell mentioned in his 2012 book, and quoted in Gordon’s book, “In our effort to get beyond race, we have paid too little attention to how it is constructed and to the work of the structures of the unconscious do in creating racial conditions and meaning. Race is not just an idea that we can choose to engage or not”. In essence, policy inaction that does not include racial equity is unacceptable.
  8. Racial equity needs to operate in a context of accountability. Performance goals should be linked to the organization’s mission statement, values, organizational structure, and its strategic planning. Government agencies should be invested in analyzing racial-equity dimension, which should include procedural fairness, access, quality and outcomes.
  9. If legal barriers to racial discrimination have been largely eliminated, agency leadership, policies, practices, and innovations form the foundation of essential front line racial equity work.
    There must be an examination of the structural inequities with municipal agencies and concerted efforts to achieve racial equity.
  10. Significant racial equity progress in government can be achieved.
    Through the important work of administrators, it can be a less nervous and more equitable one.

One such example was a post on “Budgeting for Equitable Outcomes” from earlier this week Adam Slade from Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council.

Adam Slade, Metropolitan Planning Council

Slade mentions that significant outcomes must occur to ensure equity is addressed within the budget.

  • Inclusive community engagement
  • Forecasting expected revenues from all levels of government that ensures intergenerational equity
  • Allocated revenues to priorities
  • Development of performance measures.

I would like to thank Carlton Eley who suggested that I read this book. It will be the backbone for my ongoing research during the remainder of the MPA Local Government program. It will focus on race and social equity as it relates to housing, community development and governance.

The State of Transit Leadership: The Need to Address Social Equity

In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.

Albert Einstein

Shout out to an old colleague Mikel Oglesby who previous was Sunline Transit’s CEO and where I attended my one and only State of Transit address several years ago.

As a kid who resided in Lawrence Heights in social housing and in a co-op , transit was a8 way of life. My parents never owned a car. Nevertheless, I was enamoured by the whole experience. The bus drivers on the Ranee 109 or Lawrence 52 were my friends, even though I never knew their names.

I looked forward to every TTC map release and would ask the collector manning the booth for a copy. Sometimes multiple times if there weren’t any copies. I always viewed the TTC as an organization I wanted to work for.

I never viewed public transit as a status symbol and always played down the terms choice rider or captive rider.

Transit, to me was about a career with ties to community building and social equity. So when I saw TTC’s recent campaign wrapped in messaging, it was the wrong tone to send to their customers.

Image via Sean Marshall

John Lorinc’s Spacing article “Just Who is the Face of the TTC These Days?” highlighted the leadership vacuum that exists. There is clearly a stark difference between Andy Byford, who recently resigned as New York City’s Transit President after a two-year stint, and the current TTC CEO Rick Leary. Case in point, as Lorinc mentions, Leary was incognito after the second subway derailment this year. In addition, .

Transit providers should treat all individuals with dignity and respect, one of the key points noted in a 2018 APTA leadership presentation on social responsibility. There is also strategic and technical leadership. For example, while transit service standards have evolved over time, including King County where they include social equity measures, Canadian transit agencies do not incorporate them service standards.

It was a mere 3 years ago that the TTC was awarded the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Outstanding Public Transportation System. Oh have times changed.

The state of transit leadership thus far in 2020 is bleak at best. Andy Byford was a prime example of one who went out of his way to be publicly present and defend transit during some their trying times. The City and region is devoid of leadership and willingness to take risks.

It can only get better from here.

Talk about funding transit with one voice

While I partially agree with this tweet by “urbanist” Adam Chaleff (a term I absolutely detest by the way), it set me off. The article Chaleff referred to was about finding innovative ways to fund the Waterfront East LRT according to Mark Romoff.  Romoff included a land value capture model that is being used to revitalize Mimico GO Station and leveraging the use of the Canada Infrastructure Bank.  The latter is an idea that I fully supported, and so did Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam.  Critics have stated infrastructure banks similar to ones in Chicago and Los Angeles, have gotten off to slow starts.  One of the reasons is that we tend to work in silos.

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Brampton: Welcome to the new City of Mississauga

The Ontario Government announced earlier this week that they will be conducting a review of regional government. 8 regional municipalities and the 82 local municipalities within them will be affected. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs announced they hired reputable advisors, Michael Fenn and Ken Seiling, to undertake this study. For those who read Leaders in the Shadows, Fenn’s career was highlighted in the book. The “leader-generalist” was a former Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) in Burlington and former deputy minister with the MMAH. Seiling was the former elected Chair of Waterloo Region from 1985-2018.

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