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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Inaction Items

We see a lot of plans, projects, and PowerPoints from the District. Each of these generally include a list of Action Items. This is a sort of "To Do" list - the steps that staff need to take to see the project to completion. Once the project has gotten started they usually grow an "accomplishments" list - the steps that have already been taken.

For the staff of Seattle Public Schools these lists are the canvas on which they practice their art - the art of the inaction verb.

I'm sure that people have read my rants about these before. Those rants have been mostly general in nature and you might question their veracity. Today I would like to offer a contempary example and de-construct it.

This is from the Board Action Report on Resolution 2010/11-3 - Response to the State Audits:
The district has put into place a number of responses, including:

* The School Board is developing a comprehensive plan to address the audit findings as well as to improve oversight and management of the District overall;

* The School Board is committed to addressing the concerns regarding district oversight that were outlined in the "Accountability Audit" and is taking the following actions, among others;

* Establishing a governance and oversight team to lead efforts to develop and implement necessary changes to the district's governance and oversight structure

* Establishing regular oversight work sessions for the board to exercise its oversight and provide review of district operations and systems

* Adding an additional "Audit" meeting to stay informed on the audit response plan,

* Adding 3-4 "oversight" work sessions during the 2010-2011 school year;

* Utilizing internal and external auditors to review and improve district performance and oversight;

* Revising district policies to include a clear governance structure and strategy, and additional key elements of management oversight; and

* Management staff have developed a detailed audit response plan to address all of the specific system and business problems identified in the audits, including identifying an "audit response team" to lead this work

It is expected that completing the responses to all of the findings will take time, but the intention of this resolution is to outline the initial steps and to send a clear message to the State Auditor’s Office and public about our intentions to resolve the findings.
This is a pretty representative sample of the sort of artistry the District staff performs. It is genius. Evil genius, but genius none the less. I can't help but admire how it is crafted.

Let's break it down.

"The district has put into place a number of responses, including:"
Here's an interesting bit of grammar knowledge: "has put" is the present perfect verb tense. I know that it sounds like past tense, but it is a form of present tense. In other words, although it seems like they are claiming that these things are done, they are only claiming that these things are in process. In fact, none of the listed actions are actually done. In fact, most of them aren't even really started. Also note the "number of responses". What is the number? Count them. If you count the bullet points you would think that they have nine responses. Wait and see how many there really are.

"* The School Board is developing a comprehensive plan to address the audit findings as well as to improve oversight and management of the District overall"

There's a lot to say about this one. First, notice the verb tenses. The Board "is developing". This is an action in progress. Or is it? What are they developing? They are developing a plan. So developing isn't really an action. In fact, planning isn't really an action. I mean it doesn't actually involve any real action that changes anything. It's a crow-hop step you take before you take real action. Both developing and planning are artful "inaction" verbs. Imagine you told your child to clean her room. Fifteen minutes later you come back to find it untouched. If she told you that she was planning to clean it, would you regard that as action? What if she was even another step removed from any real action - she was only developing a plan to clean it?

Then comes the whole question as to whether this should even count as a response. Is a plan for the response actually part of the response? I don't think so. It's not the response; it's the envelope that the response comes in. Developing a plan for the response is the envelope that the envelope comes it. Cumulative response total: 0.

"* The School Board is committed to addressing the concerns regarding district oversight that were outlined in the "Accountability Audit" and is taking the following actions, among others;"

Ummm. This isn't an item in the list; it is a restatement of introduction to the list. Grammatically and logically it is nonsensical. Didn't anyone proof this? Cumulative response total: 0.

"* Establishing a governance and oversight team to lead efforts to develop and implement necessary changes to the district's governance and oversight structure"

Again, is this an action? It isn't. Establishing a team to take action isn't itself an action any more than planning to take action is an action. This is another artful inaction. Again, consider the child/room equivalent: you're child claims to have taken decisive and effective action - she has chosen a team to oversee the room cleaning. That doesn't get any clothes off the floor. It's actually worse than an inaction because it clouds the accountability. Will this team execute the plan that the Board is developing or will this team develop their own plan for addressing the audit concerns? Who is going to make the plan? What authority has been or will be delegated to this team? Cumulative response total: 0.

"* Establishing regular oversight work sessions for the board to exercise its oversight and provide review of district operations and systems"

They promise to have meetings someday. This not only isn't an action, it isn't even an inaction. It's a promise to take an inaction (a meeting) in the future. Again, imagine that your child says "I'm going to schedule meetings with people about cleaning my room". Cumulative response total: 0.

"* Adding an additional "Audit" meeting to stay informed on the audit response plan,"

See above. This is another promise to take meetings in the future. Even when they have the meetings, they will be inactions, not actions. This isn't part of the audit response; this is a promise that they will stay informed on the audit response. Cumulative response total: 0.

"* Adding 3-4 "oversight" work sessions during the 2010-2011 school year;"

Ummm. Didn't we already have this? How is this different from inaction item number 4? It isn't. It's a repeat of an item in their list. They are trying to get credit for the same item twice. Cumulative response total: 0.

"* Utilizing internal and external auditors to review and improve district performance and oversight;"

Oh my gosh! Here, at the seventh bullet point, we come dangerously close to actually having an action item on the action item list. But what is the action? "We'll try to do better". That's it? That's the kernel of their response? "We will assign some folks without authority with the duty to remake everything we do." Well, I guess it's something; I'm going to give them credit for it even though it is so vague as to be meaningless. Cumulative response total: 1.

"* Revising district policies to include a clear governance structure and strategy, and additional key elements of management oversight;"

This is a vague promise to revise policies someday in the future in such a way that provides for governance and oversight. Again, it isn't any actual action, but given that it is the Board's duty to make policy, I think this is their work and they are promising to do their jobs. While I don't regard that as an extraordinary item that belongs on a list of special actions they will take, and despite the fact that it is a promise of future action which may never happen, I going to give them credit for it. Cumulative response total: 2.

"* Management staff have developed a detailed audit response plan to address all of the specific system and business problems identified in the audits, including identifying an "audit response team" to lead this work"

I had to read this a couple times before I realized that it wasn't a re-statement of the whole proposal all over again. All of the items preceding this one were specifically about the Board's failure to oversee or, really, govern the district in any way. This item is about the staff's failure to have the appropriate systems in place for their business activities. The child/room equivalent would be "My friend is planning to clean her room." It does not speak to any action that the Board has taken or will take. Cumulative response total: 2.

So what initially looked like a long list of nine actions that the Board has taken is revealed, upon inspection, to really be two vaguely described actions that the Board promises to take in future. Pure.Evil.Genius.

Then they tie it all up with a ribbon by saying that this sort of work takes time, so don't expect any real action soon, or, in fact, ever. Anyone who buys this is an idiot.

10 comments:

ParentofThree said...

"planning to take action is an action."

And that is all you will ever see.

Anybody ever see that Transporation Savings Report? Lot's of planning to take action on getting that to the board/community.

Excellent post!

Chris S. said...

So if you were thinking about voting for the levy, an appropriate action plan would be to form a team with yourself and have some meetings to formulate a plan for voting and maybe get some advice from others and ...good luck getting done by Nov. 2.

WV: thersusk. I want to change two letters.

Dorothy Neville said...

Along the same lines, it is fascinating to read the Strategic Plan appendix of June 2008. If you have read the audit and are reasonably aware of the audit issues (from the 2008-2009 school year) then start on page 49.

One can use Charlie's strategy effectively to illuminate places where this document mentions planning to consider plans to address implementation of recommendations.

none1111 said...

Normally I find the WV references to be minor annoyances. This one made me laugh out loud. Nice job.

WV: thersusk. I want to change two letters.

Charlie Mas said...

Here's something interesting.

How different would it have been if the Board Action Report said this instead:

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

The Board will take the following actions to address the findings in the state auditor's reports:

The Board will confirm that specific action has been taken to correct each of the audit findings.

The Board will confirm that new administrative procedures will be written and followed that will assure correct processes going forward.

The Board will hold the superintendent accountable for the District's peformance on future audits.

The Board will take additional steps to fulfill their responsibility to oversee and govern the District including, but not limited to:
- holding oversight meetings to review the policies, procedures and performance of District programs on a regularly scheduled basis of one- two- or three-year cycles. This schedule will be written by the end of October.
- requesting and reviewing annual performance reports from every district program. A program list will be written by the end of October.
- writing accountability elements into every motion. Going forward, we will not approve motions without accountability elements.
- revising policies to include oversight and governance elements. The Policy revision project will be done by June 2011.

Now that's a list of action items.

ArchStanton said...

"I'm fixin' to start planning to get around to beginning to clean my room." Yeah, I've heard that before.

I'm never surprised to hear the district use this sort of language. It's always notable when they can claim to have done anything in the past tense.

Teachermom said...

I think that the board and superintendent should be required to write all of their goals as SMART goals:

■S = Specific
■M = Measurable
■A = Attainable
■R = Realistic
■T = Timely

This is what they require of the teachers.

JvA said...

I think I liked the "adding an additional" part best.

Charlie Mas said...

Good catch JvA. I'll add that to my list of hateful expressions.

Whenever Don Kennedy says "at this point in time" I always want to interrupt him and ask "You mean now?"

Anonymous said...

I heard that they were trying to get rid of the internal auditor position. What happened to this position that was created almost 3 years ago? Does this internal auditor have any thing to say about the actions that the board is taking towards the State Audit?