Wednesday, March 2, 2016

What can Flint's water crisis teach us about organizational culture?

Leslie Garner Franklin, Consultant, Mākyago
(Luis Valentino)  My friend and colleague, Leslie Garner Franklin, recently shared this blog post with me, which she posted on her website, Makyago.  I appreciated her sharing this blog entry because it resonated on a number of levels. For those of us who have dedicated our careers to working in the public sector, there is growing frustration over our inability to affect change in comprehensive and sustained ways.   Our fear is that we have contributed little to the transformation of the institutions we have embraced.  In this thoughtful piece, Leslie offers us a perspective on some of those aspects that impact our public institutions.

What can Flint's water crisis teach us about organizational culture?

(Leslie Garner) Those of us who are Harvard Business Review junkies may remember Julian Birkinshaw’s 2013 article “Bureaucracy is a Bogeyman”. It was written in the customer service section and posed the opening question We frequently accuse large and complex companies of being bureaucratic, but what about them do we really want to see change?” He goes on to define bureaucracy, talk about its merits (yes, there are a few), and share a story about what it looks like in real life, bringing to bear a recent personal experience. He then provides an obvious answer to his opening question: we want to know who is responsible for fixing our problems. The end, of course, is a solution: publish a list of who is responsible for what so customers can get their questions answered without going through layer after layer of…bureaucracy. 

Having spent the last three-and-a-half years in a large, complex, and yes, bureaucratic organization, I can attest to Birkinshaw’s key points, even going as far as agreeing with bureaucracy’s merits. I struggle, however, to believe that greater transparency and technical fixes are sufficient to combatting bureaucracy when it comes to the large, complex and political organizations that are our government and public agencies. 

As the water crisis in Flint, Mich., reveals, upending bureaucracy in our government and public agencies is the most important change we can demand. Lives literally depend on it. However, when cities tout and go after “innovative solutions” to buck the status quo and tackle bureaucracy, we commonly see open data projects and partnerships with programs like Code For America that focus on making the inefficient efficient. What these efforts yield is valuable. For example, the City of Pittsburgh’s new procurement process will save hundreds of wasted hours (and hopefully, dollars). Unfortunately, these technical fixes – those with a clear problem definition, solution and implementation - wouldn’t have prevented the man-made disaster in Flint. Just as racial bias won’t disappear because police officers are wearing body cameras.

If we really want to change our government and public agencies – the bureaucracies that run our communities and our country – we must innovate on culture. And that is a messy challenge that requires leadership from everyone: our elected representatives, Sue in accounting, the local school janitor, and those in between. 

Let’s go back to Flint. Currently, a University of Michigan-Flint professor and his students are offering their expertise to help the city figure out where to find the system’s lead pipes. Turns out that information is written in pencil on 45,000 index cards. A technical fix – digitizing these records, for example – could’ve and will help Flint come to speedier resolution. However, as detailed in the New Yorker the accountability-free culture is the culprit. From passing the water because it met most tests; to dismissing resident complaints of “organic matter”; to testing a single stretch of road with new pipes as opposed to those across the city or those with the most cases of illness nearby; to playing up the reason for the problem in the first place (saving money because the city was broke); to learning that the Governor’s Chief of Staff questioned why he should spend time on solving this problem. Bureaucracy’s worst is at its best and on display in what we’re seeing in Flint. 

While I agree that the Governor and his appointee are ultimately responsible and will be held accountable, there are many state and city employees in Flint and in government and public agencies around the country who witness – and want to question – the micro decisions like those that led to the crisis in Flint. While there may be a few who don’t care, most often those who witness and want to question what’s happening feel disempowered or afraid to speak up. They’ve seen it play out before. If they do, their job will be on the line. They will be subjected to harassment or sidelined when a promotion comes up. The personal risk of doing the right thing, of questioning the status quo, is too great. This is a culture issue and is the kind typically left unaddressed.  

Given the political nature of working in government and public agencies, even those like President Obama who run on changing culture (in his case turning the page on “ugly partisanship in Washington”) default to the initiatives and tangible wins they can make during their tenure. It might be because politicians don’t often come with a management background, or it might be politics itself and the urgency to “get things done”. If you’ve ever worked in one of these bureaucracies, you’ve seen this at play. 

So, how can we change the organizational culture of the bureaucracies that govern our communities and our schools given the turnover in leadership, the archaic filing systems, and the urgency of now? What beliefs must be confronted? What vision must be refocused? What goals and actions must be pursued? 

As we collectively learn from Flint and the many tragedies that are rooted in the culture of government and public agencies, and as we elect and select new leaders in roles from the Superintendent to the President, we must consider:
  1. Electing and selecting leaders who are courageous and experienced in the hard work of changing culture. While new and bold ideas are necessary to pave the way forward, innovating bureaucracy requires leaders who know how to get things done and are as realistic as they are optimistic.  
  2. Winning the hearts and minds of employees at every level of the system. Changing our systems won’t come at the hands of the leader alone. Those who work at every level of the system – especially those who have “been there” – will need to go there again and be a part of internal change efforts 
  3. Informing voters about the root causes. Voters and residents (self included) have short attention spans. We want to see things change quickly. The patience for the long view and voters’ willingness to give leaders the space to both accomplish what’s urgent and fix the problems that are culture-rooted requires that voters understand “why” things are as they are.
So, what do we really want to see change? If it’s long-term impact we’re after, it’s the culture of the bureaucracies that govern our communities and our country. 


  1. The problem with public organizations and their bureaucracies is that, at best, it only creates inefficiencies. At worst, however, it generates financial losses, sacrifices citizens (ie students, patients, public service providers, etc.) and society ends up paying the cost.

  2. My first thought is that bureaucracy is a system that begins at home. Families are a microcosm of the bureaucracy we see in our larger institutions. In the best run homes responsibility and accountability are part of the family fabric from the top down. Yes, like larger institutions, it is a top-down system. Parents may hold themselves accountable, but to whom? Then there are families who are messily run, with responsibility and accountability being haphazard, reflected in failed tasks, a weak financial structure and poor morale. In all
    cases, what do the people want? Responsible leadership, clear signals and instruction, timely action, and the courage to not only face crisis but to do inform its constituency of the situation and inform it of action needed at all levels (including participation of its members), and the consequences of failing to do so. Like good parents, leaders of larger infrastructures will also be able to preempt disaster by listening to its members. Unfortunately, in microcosms and microcosms, we don't always know what kind of leaders we have at the top until a disaster strikes.