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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Why Bother with Stakeholders

I have been a close observer of Seattle Public Schools for over six years. During that time I have seen how most of the District's decisions are made and I can report that the District's decision-making is dysfunctional. By that, I mean that it doesn't work.

I mean that as objectively as I can.

Near as I can reckon, a decision should have two qualities. First, it should be a good decision - one that solves the problem in a cost-effective way without creating too many new problems. Second, it should be decisive - it should resolve the question. A great number of the decisions that I have seen from the District fail to demonstrate one or both of these qualities.

Setting aside for the moment the quality of the decisions - and there have been some real stinkers - I would like to address the District's difficulty in bringing issues to resolution with their decisions. I believe they have not been able to achieve resolution because they routinely fail to gain the support of stakeholders. The District's decisions have typically been unilateral, top-down and dictatorial. They are certainly free to make their decisions this way; the District's structure puts all of the authority at the top in the hands of a few. Those people are under no obligation to seek counsel from stakeholders - let alone seek consensus from them. No wonder they figure that it is just easier and quicker for them to gather their own information, use their own process, and make the decision on their own.

What they neglect to consider are the consequences of their choice not to involve stakeholders in the decision, their choice not to try to sell the decision to the stakeholders, their choice not to even explain or, sometimes, even inform stakeholders of the decision. The usual consequence is opposition to the decision from the stakeholders. It don't take Dale Carnegie to figure that out.

Perhaps they think that over time the stakeholders, usually students, families, and teachers, will drop their opposition and accept the decision. They are wrong. The stakeholders persist in their opposition. The stakeholders persist because they know four things:

1) The stakeholders are often called upon to implement the decision so they can actively oppose it through their refusal to implement it.

2) The stakeholders can make life miserable for the decision-makers by going over their head and kicking up a fuss.

3) The stakeholders can make life miserable for the decision-makers because they have to continue to work together and this sort of unilateral decision-making poisons the relationship.

4) Most of all, the stakeholders know that they will be around much longer than Central Staff people, so they will simply keep the issue open and hope to have it overturned by the decision-maker's replacement, whom we can expect in the short-term.

It is this fourth one that strikes me the strongest. In just over six years of involvement, I have seen three superintendents, three chief academic officers, four chief operating officers, countless chief financial people, at least two Board members from each District (three from one of them), and four different managers of Advanced Learning.

Compare those average tenures of two or three years with the thirteen years that a student will be a stakeholder, the sixteen years that a family with two kids might be a stakeholder, or the twenty years that a teacher might be a stakeholder. The stakeholders are the ones with the long-term involvement - not the decision-makers. We can wait them out.

So if the new Superintendent, as part of her 100 days of listening, were to ask me about the issues in Advanced Learning, I would include on the list a lot of issues that appear decided and that should have been decided, but continue to be open issues because the stakeholders have not accepted the decisions. The problem isn't just the poor quality of the decisions - and, really, some of these decisions are just plain wrong and absolutely undefensible - but the utter lack of effort to win stakeholder approval. I would go further - the apparent contempt for stakeholder approval.

Those who would seek stakeholder input and approval run the risk of being accused of "interminable Seattle process" or "caving in to the mob". I would suggest that the interminable process is having your decisions fought for years after they were made and then re-decided by your successors for years after you are gone.

Anyone else have thoughts on this?

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, they don't need to bother with stakeholders, because they get a whole new crop every year, with no institutional memory. (KIndergarden parents)

AS long as you have enough new people coming in every year, you do not need to bother with what the old people want.

Most people who are stakeholders in SPS do not have a choice - they have to attend public school. They cannot afford private, and cannot move out. SPS has a captive population, and at the highest levels they know it. This leads to arrogant decision making.

That said (probably need to finish my coffee - I seem cranky) bravo to all who keep trying to get good decisions made, to those who keep hoping things will improve, and to teachers who do good work.

Anonymous said...

Your new superintendent could care less for public input. She historically listens only to the key players that benefit her. I witnessed this first hand. She is more than adept in public speaking. She fails miserably in public listening especially if one disagrees with her. We, in Charleston can't thank you wnough for taking her off our hands. But, as far as her ability to fix your schools, it ain't gonna happen pal. She is all talk and no results

Anonymous said...

"Well, they don't need to bother with stakeholders, because they get a whole new crop every year, with no institutional memory. (KIndergarden parents)"

But that's true for every school district. What's actually DIFFERENT about the way Seattle handles things, and why?

Helen Schinske

Anonymous said...

Go back to Beth's earlier post and read how decisions are made in Scotland. With only the officials in a room, behind closed doors. Then the decision is just announced according to Beth), though the public seems to have the same reactions as us here in Seattle even after "the Seattle process" style governance. It makes the US or at least Seattle seem rather reasonable if you ask me.

Maria Ramirez said...

I, too, have lived through eight years of witnessing poor decision making processes at SPS which end up further dividing our communities and not serving our children. This paragraph was especially compelling:

“So if the new Superintendent, as part of her 100 days of listening, were to ask me about the issues in Advanced Learning, I would include on the list a lot of issues that appear decided and that should have been decided, but continue to be open issues because the stakeholders have not accepted the decisions. The problem isn't just the poor quality of the decisions - and, really, some of these decisions are just plain wrong and absolutely undefensible - but the utter lack of effort to win stakeholder approval. I would go further - the apparent contempt for stakeholder approval.”

Substitute “Special Education”, “Alternative Education” or “Bilingual Services” for “Advanced Learning” and everything you say applies. Many of us have served on committees, worked diligently on recommendations and reports--The Five Year Plan, Recommendations to Close the Achievement Gap (1986, 1994, 2001), CAICEE, to name just a few--only to have them sit on a shelf. This is an issue of accountability. We can talk about that another time. Its an important discussion to have.

I'd like to see us work together on a united front. Sort of like Charilie's "If I Were King" blog for program placement. We can't keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, who do you believe are "Stakeholders?" Just parents? What about the taxpayers of Seattle?

Or by stakeholders do you mean those who employ the NIMBY or exclusive focus on thier school/program/issue?

Charlie Mas said...

I'm surprised by the question about who is included in the group "stakeholders".

Obviously anyone who has a stake is a stakeholder.

Taxpayers would certainly be among the stakeholders in some decisions, particularly the financial ones. Why would anyone doubt it?

In the original post, you will note these words:

"the stakeholders, usually students, families, and teachers"

Of course some people, those directly impacted, have a greater stake in a decision. I suppose that everyone in the area is subject to some indirect impact - even if it is soo small to note - and therefore has some stake in every District decision.

The question also surprises me because I don't recall anyone being asked to butt out of a discussion because they didn't have a stake in a decision. I reckon that if you have a passion for it that moves you to get involved then you have a stake.

The anonymous poster seems to be itching for a fight, but there doesn't seem to be any dispute here. There is no one on the other side of that argument.

Anonymous said...

I think Anon's point is that if the recent elections serve as a guide, a good portion (dare I say a majority) of Seattle appears to disagree with a lot of things that have been championed by this school board, including the issues that are lauded as victories on this blog.

Also, if you recall the "Seattle Process" thread, there was great divide between those who wanted lots of "engagement" and those who prefered "action from the experts." Many of us feel like too much time is wasted cowtowing to vocal parent championing thier pet cause to the detriment of moving the whole district forward.

And, yes, people have been told "butt out of a discussion because they didn't have a stake in a decision," specifically those who identified themselves as not having kids but being Seattle residents, stating that that was the majority of the citizenry of Seattle, and then voicing disagreement with wasting money on a new high school so long as many schools sit at less than half full.

Anonymous said...

I think a great many "pet causes" or "special interests" are actually entirely compatible with each other, indeed just different aspects of the *same* reform, and the district plays them off against each other *as if* they were separate factions struggling for a piece of the pie, when they're really not. Divide and conquer.

Helen Schinske

Anonymous said...

I am one of the people who is just tired of the "Seattle Process". I am so glad that this superintendint just might light a fire, and get this district moving in a positive direction.

I think there is a place for public input. I believe large decisions should have public input. The experts should review the input, weigh it with their expertise, and knowledge of what will work for the district as a whole, and move forward swiftly. Remember a lot of public input is based on what individuals or small groups are advocating on their own behalf. They do not necessarily see the big picture or what will work for the district as a whole. They do not have access to the statistics, and numbers that the "experts" do.

The Seattle process has us going round and round the mulberry bush, and we end up right back where we start. We need a strong super, a cohesive board, and expert administrators all working together to move this district forward.

Charlie Mas said...

anonymous wrote:

"We need a strong super, a cohesive board, and expert administrators all working together to move this district forward."

We did not have a strong super before. We did not have expert administrators before. Perhaps now we do.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Well, there are lies, damn lies and statistics (Mark Twain). I would love to believe that our district staff use the best and most timely information but experience has not borne that out. So standing back and letting them do their work and taking their explanations at face value about how they came to their decisions is problematic for me.

It is interesting that Charlie should bring up this topic because I'm reading a book called "Made to Stick" (Chip Heath and Dan Heath). They wrote it as something as a companion to the book "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point was about "the forces that cause social phenomena to make the leap from small groups to big groups". So there's three sections: need to get the right people, the "stickiness factor" and the need for right context.

The brothers Heath are interested in the stickiness factor. They are interested in "how effective ideas are constructed and what makes some stick and some disappear".

I am only in the first chapter but it's a good example of what we seem to want from the district administration. They start with the example of the Army. There is a multitude of planning steps that occur before a soldier takes action. But "no plan survives contact with the enemy"; meaning, things change once you take action on the plan.

So what to do? They use a concept in the Army called the Commander's Intent (CI). It is "a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order that specifies the plan's goal and end-state of an operation."

So, in essence, there is never so much detail in any CI that the forces of war, weather or any other element can change it. So the Army recommends two things that officers think about the CI:

"If we do nothing else during tomorrow's mission,we must _______."

"The single, most important thing that we must do tomorrow is ______>"

One version of their "no plan survives contact with the enemy" is "no lesson plan survives contact with teenagers".

The idea is to KSS - keep it simple, stupid. You don't weed out ideas because they aren't important but they aren't the MOST important. Eye on the prize. In their words, "it's about elegance and prioritization, not dumbing down."

To me, in all my years of following the district and the different reports, initiatives and ideas, I have not seen a central focus from the district. A CI that is carried out every day. That's what's missing. That's what I want Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson to do and hold every single district employee to. IMHO, that's how we will make real and discernable progress that everyone can see and understand.