In the most challenging economic era Seattle has faced since Hoovervilles sprouted in the shadow of the Smith Tower, Mayor Nickels’ annual State of the City address was remarkable for its avoidance of the most pressing question: How do we manage the City in a way that gets us out in front of the economic cris1s instead of being caught in reaction mode?
The answer to that question offers the only hope we have for marshalling resources enough to meet the demand for basic human services as the situation worsens. As Seattleites who used to be "one paycheck away" from homelessness start needing emergency shelter, demand for services will soar. As parents become newly unemployed through no fault of their own, they will struggle to find a way to keep breakfast on the table. The numbers have already begun to spike up at area food banks.
The Mayor is right about one thing. In Seattle we pride ourselves on our sense of concern for each other — and yet in his address Nickels gave no details about how the city is preparing for the inevitable. One wonders if the captain has a steady hand on the tiller or is simply rearranging deck chairs. Behind the speech’s veil of PR spin and waves of oft-repeated statistics (More movie shoots than ever!), we have no way of knowing.
By the end of Mayor Nickels’ State of the City address one could only wonder: Does the Mayor realize that we’re just not that interested pothole statistics for the seventh time in a row?
Nickels has spent the bulk of his career — since age 19 — as a bureaucrat or a politician. This is no slight to his years of service. He has effectively avoided getting lost in the seas of lofty visions, but he also has missed opportunities in managing the city’s finances through this crisis. While he spoke of doing “more with less,” he gave no particular description how, precisely, he proposes to do so.
My personal perspective comes from the automotive and manufacturing industries, where business and management challenges abound. If there is one industry that can inform us about strategies to adopt or reject in a crisis, automotive is it. When truly frightening storms approach, far better to tack in the direction of Alan Mullaly at Ford than Rick Wagoner at General Motors.
In short, get the problems on the table, air out the data, let everyone see the picture, and then ask everyone to pitch in with solutions. Marshall resources early — and more than you think you may need. Don’t bury bad news; embrace it as an opportunity. The quickest route to your own demise is keeping information compartmentalized and revealing only part of the picture to some of the team.
With that approach to a crisis in mind, here’s what Mayor Nickels could have said in his speech that would have inspired greater confidence that he has the skills in-hand to navigate these waters:
“My fellow Seattle citizens, I’ve asked the nearly 700 city employees who, like me, make more than $100,000 per year to join with me in taking a voluntary 10 percent pay reduction for the rest of 2009. In addition, I ask those who are able to consider making an additional contribution of their salary to a local organization that addresses homelessness, hunger, or the concern of your choice that will aid our Seattle neighbors in need right now. Not everyone will be able to contribute in the same way, but these times will require all of us who love the things that make Seattle different to step up in every way we can.
“In addition, I have directed the heads of all City departments to recommend ways of immediate achieving cost savings, cost reductions, and new efficiencies so that we can direct those savings to vital human needs during this economic crises. We must end programs that aren’t working, adjust our expectations for automatic wage increases, and find creative ways to utilize our workforce to preserve jobs.
“Our new President spoke to this in his Inaugural Address and now is the time for all of us to act. Our goal as a city should be to double our ‘war chest’ for addressing homelessness, hunger, and basic needs before the year is done. For we will surely need it.
“Finally, we ask our City employees and our labor union partners to help lead us through the storm. We need to have the flexibility and creativity of our union workforce brought to bear on our challenges. If we are to find ways to truly get more done with less, our employees will lead us there. Therefore I am asking the leaders of each labor union Local with whom the City maintains a labor agreement to bring forward their proposals for finding new efficiency and generating savings we can put to our fundamental needs.
“I’ve asked everyone to get me their ideas and proposals within two weeks, and we will share them with citizens to show them that we are doing all things possible to get in front of these challenges. In this crisis, we cannot be stuck playing catch-up ball.”
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