Why SNAFU and FUBAR are SOP (in DC)
While looking at some old entries in relation to schools reform, which is relevant to the issue of whether or not to build a new middle school in Ward 3, while many schools in other wards have massive underutilization (not to mention all the former DCPS school buildings that have been converted into "public" charter schools), I came across this entry, which is especially relevant to the issue, and public administration and city management generally.
This entry is reprinted from May 22, 2009
A week or two ago someone wrote a letter to the Post objecting to the use of the term "fubar" in a Doonesbury comic strip, because they believe that the F word used in the term is an expletive. Actually, the original term was "fouled up beyond all recognition," and similar to the term "snafu," situation normal, all fouled up. Although yes, people use the other F word interchangeably in either of these terms.
Extract from the cover image of the book The F Word: How we learned to swear by feminism.
Although I used to joke when I was the Main Street Manager in Brookland that "flawed" was the other F word.
Anyway, close readers of this blog know that I focus incessantly on structures, processes, and systems rather than personalization and the heroic savior to guide urbanism and good and sound government. My thinking about systems gets stronger and stronger--about the need to build robust but flexible processes, rather than focus on individualistic thinking, to ensure better hopefully robust and resilient outcomes.
I find the Washington Post frustrating because it--remember that it is a fresh edition every day, and that seemingly cancels out everything else that had been written before--does not focus on systems but for the most part, treats today as if nothing else had happened before, and that if negative results occurred yesterday, they won't occur today because the incorrect behavior was an aberration and won't be repeated.
This is particularly true with the columnists such as Marc Fisher. His column yesterday, "Getting Through to Kids, If Council Stays Out of Way," exhibits why both the newspaper and local municipal government are "fubar," because they don't really understand the process of change.
I came across this book, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Formation in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and together with The Social Psychology of Organizations, and other readings in organization behavior and civic engagement (especially publications produced by the Citizenship Involvement Training Project at the University of Massachusetts Amherst), my approach to change and innovation was set. (Along with working for a consumer group that had Nader lineage in the late 1980s and other involvements.)
The issue that Marc Fisher writes about is pretty simple. City Council wants a new "problem student resolution" program that is now managed separately from the school system to be rolled into the DC Public School System. The Deputy Mayor for Education, Victor Reinoso, does not believe in doing this, because:
Council members want the school system to take over START, but Reinoso argues that in government and business alike, innovation tends to come from outside core structures -- from Bell Labs, not the phone company. "This is moving forward in large part because it's apart from the school system," Reinoso argues.
While Victor is right that this occurs, rather than figure out why the DCPS system is dysfunctional and correct that, he would rather develop an innovative program outside of the system.
I have written plenty about dysfunctional government agencies, the dearth of a transformational thinking framework towards the reconceptualization of programs and service delivery, and so much about the schools specifically, including insights from the field of "positive deviance," which works to identify highly functioning sections of otherwise dysfunctional organizations and work to migrate and expand those clusters of excellence.
Neither seems to be too concerned about the lack of focus on identifying why dysfunction occurs within the school system and how to rectify the dysfunction.
In short, this is the fundamental issue, one that most of the stakeholders including the Executive and Legislative Branches of DC Government, parent, and other educational advocacy organizations, seem to be ignoring and/or otherwise missing.
D.C. START is intended to attack the too-common belief among teachers that many kids who come from troubled homes cannot be held to high standards. "The hope is that we will chip away at the wall that some teachers have built around themselves in terms of low expectations," Reinoso says. "As they start to see troubled kids become better-behaved, teachers will regain their faith that kids can change and succeed."
BUT THE ISSUE ISN'T the "belief among teachers that many kids who come from troubled homes cannot be held to high standards".
THE ISSUE IS FOCUSING ON THE PROBLEM BEHAVIOR, WHY IT OCCURS, AND HOW TO CHANGE IT, SO THE PROBLEMS DON'T CONTINUE TO OCCUR.
It's a systems approach, but neither Marc Fisher nor Victor Reinoso seem to recognize this.
A failure to focus on organizational behavior and culture overall, but from the standpoint of how organizations behave (social psychology of organizations) and how culture is maintained, created, and improved (change and how problems are formulated and resolved) leads to the all too common result of expecting things to change while performing the same kinds of activities. Also see the work of Chris Argyris, such as Knowledge for Action: A Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Organizational Change. And I frequently mention the work of Everett Rogers on innovation, something I also read in college, but not for a class.
By focusing on systems, why problems occur, and focusing on changing the conditions that lead to the problems, beneficial and systematic change will occur.
But not understanding this means that SNAFU and FUBAR are SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), and that any positive change is likely to be a fluke.
It's important to learn the right lesson from positive change. Too often, and this is a perfect example, practitioners lack the perspective to formulate hypotheses and theories, thereby generating meta-learning which can be applied in other settings.
In short, I am a big fan of Otto Bismarck's quote:
Fools learn from experience. I prefer to profit from the experience of others.
Instead, most "learning" is running in place, and systems are seemingly substantively improved, but outcomes remain the same, despite all the time, money, and effort expended. So, in
DC image from Cafe Press.