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Podcast: Creating a 21st Century Government with Rick Cole

Posted on May 29, 2020


Rick Cole

Rick Cole
Former City Manager
Santa Monica, California
LinkedIn | Twitter


Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. Rick Cole, long time public servant and former City Manager of Santa Monica, California, joined the podcast to talk about his vision for how government needs to change to meet the new challenges it faces. He shared lessons on leadership and how to shift government from providing legacy services to solving problems. He also discussed his career path and departure from Santa Monica.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Episode Transcript

Ben Kittelson

Hey all, this is GovLove, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, consultant at the Novak Consulting Group and GovLove co-host. We have a great episode for you today. We’re gonna be talking about 21st century government. But before we get into the episode, I want to remind our audience that the ELGL 2020 annual conference has been postponed to this October 14 through 16th. And as a reminder, if you want to support GovLove, the best way to do that is by becoming an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. We’re also looking for your feedback. Please visit govlovesurvey.com to tell us a little about you and what you think of the podcast. Knowing more about you helps us make GovLove better. That’s Govlovesurvey.com. Now let me introduce today’s guest. Rick Cole is a longtime public servant that most recently served as City Manager of Santa Monica, California, a position he was  in from 2015 to 2020. Prior to that, he served as the Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles for Budget and Innovation. And he was also City Manager of the cities of Ventura and Azusa, California. He served as an elected official in his hometown of Pasadena. And he was named one of Governing Magazines, “Public Officials of the Year” in 2006. And he’s also spoken at a number of ELGL events. So with that, Rick, thank you. Welcome to GovLove. Thank you so much for joining us.

Rick Cole

Well, I’m honored to be on. I’ve long admired the podcast, long been a fan of ELGL and excited about the possibilities as we, as we look forward to engaging more young public servants and a diverse, a more diverse cross section of public servants in remaking city government, given the magnitude of the challenges we’re facing.

Ben Kittelson

Agreed, agreed. Yeah. I can’t wait to dive into that. I think it’ll be, this conversation will be an interesting transition. And we’ve done a lot of episodes around kind of the local government response to COVID-19. And so where do we go from here? And I think you’ve got some ideas on that. So, before we get into kind of the meat of our conversation, we do have a tradition to do a lightning round on GovLove. So, a couple of fun questions to get you warmed up. First one, what book are you reading?

Rick Cole

Well, I picked up Simon Sinek’s Infinite Game, and I’ve been enjoying it. I just finished David McCullough’s, magisterial biography of Harry Truman, which is a good match, I think, because as powerful as Sinek’s, descriptions about how leaders ought to act, when you read a biography of a real leader, you realize that it’s a lot more complicated than you can fit into a TED talk. That that leadership involves setbacks, vulnerability mistakes, and hopefully learning from those mistakes. I used to tell people that because I’m a baseball fan, I’m a Detroit Tigers fan, that, that if I batted 350 I was going to go to the City Manager Hall of Fame. City management is not is not, it’s a team sport, first of all, and it’s not one where you’re going to hit every pitch, you’re going to hit home run every time you come up to bat.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah, that’s a good, good perspective for sure. Um, so my next lightning round question for you, what is your favorite font?

Rick Cole

The font of human kindness.

Ben Kittelson

[Laughter] Ok. I like that. And then, are you watching or binging any TV right now?

Rick Cole

I’m not a TV watcher, but I have to admit that during this pandemic, I literally don’t have TV connection, I didn’t have Showtime or HBO or Netflix. But I’m now on the 30 day free Netflix and I missed Parks and Rec right? That just passed me by. So I have been catching up on, on what ELGL followers have as a as a common touchdown. So at least I understand that the characters and the vocabulary.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, nice to get all of our references.

Rick Cole

Exactly.

Ben Kittelson

And the last lightning round question, where do you go for inspiration?

Rick Cole

A lot of places. I’ve been inspired by great leaders and mentors, both that I’ve known and that I’ve watched and I’m grounded in in my faith. I describe myself as a Zen Catholic. Both the grace of Christianity the serenity of Buddhism have influenced how I try to conduct myself. And history is, is probably one area for inspiration. It’s both consolation like that things have always been tough, right? Sometimes we, we feel sorry for ourselves and think, oh, things are so tough. I always look back at Valley Forge. Washington had been booted out of New York by the British. They were comfortably ensconced, you know, warming their hands by the fire and having, you know, Christmas dinner. And, and Washington was, was on the outskirts, actually, Philadelphia, not New York. And, you know, they had to build cabins. He had 10,000 troops, a third of them didn’t have shoes. They, it was the worst winter in 30 years. And almost half of his troops either died, starved or deserted. And, and then he went on to win you know, a war against the greatest empire the world had ever known. So when we bellyache about our challenges today, it helps to put those in perspective.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Um, okay, well, one thing I’ve I usually like to hear from folks is kind of their path into public service. Um, and I’m, I think it’s interesting to hear, you know, how people find local government and kind of what brought them to the, to where they are today. So for you, how did you end up pursuing a career in local government? How did you end up you know, working in this field?

Rick Cole

So I didn’t really ever pursue a career in local government. And so when young people come to me today because of the successes I’ve had, and say, you know, can give me some career advice and I always have to reflect on the fact that none of this was intentional. I grew up in Pasadena, which is probably the best known city of its size in America because of the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl and Caltech. And its image, you know, foreign wise is kind of an affluent, Southern California suburban community. When I was growing up in it, though, it was a ferment of dynamic change. People are often surprised to learn that Pasadena was the first city west of Mississippi to have a federal court ordered to integrate their schools. There was a history of, of racial and economic segregation in the city. And that was a challenge. At the time I was growing up and I found myself in high school, becoming student body president not on the basis that I was going to going to have better dances or no have a nicer prom, but on the basis of fighting for student rights and for integration, and and that, you know, sort of prematurely launched me into into community activism and community politics and I, I managed the campaign of my high school government teacher after I graduated, to run for city council. And he got elected, to the shock of the city’s conservative establishment. And two years later at the age of 29 I ran for city council, total underdog. I was you know, the newspaper was against me, the police and fire unions were against me, the Republican Party was against me in a very conservative community, and, and I won and spent 12 years on the city council, as first a pretty lonesome progressive voice and increasingly finding myself in the mainstream and took on some some pretty giant battles, including fighting with the Tournament of Roses over integrating their leadership, which they did and which I’m proud to say changed the trajectory of what has been an all white, all male led organization. And so, at the end of that, I decided I wouldn’t run after 12 years I’ve been there. I’ve done a lot, accomplished a lot of what I’d set out to do, I didn’t have a career at that point. I had a journalism master’s and I started a newspaper, which is still publishing, but I had at every turn sacrificed, you know, earning a living to serving on the city council. So at the end of that, I thought, okay, you know, I’m in my early 40s, I’ve got kids on the way, what am I going to do now. So I worked for I was asked to work for an environmental organization that I was on the board of. And I did that and it brought me into contact with cities all over the country, but especially in California and the West Coast. They wanted to, to, to hear our advice and technical assistance. And after doing that for three years, which was enormously instructive to give me a sense of just how diverse and yet how similar the challenges of city government are, I mean, all politics is local, but many of the same issues crop up in different forms, you know, in communities that are very different communities, small communities, rural communities, urban communities. And so I had been, when I had been Mayor, the city manager had said, you know, Rick, you you really ought to be a city manager. And at first I thought he was just flattering me and it was a nice thing to say. But he said, no, no. But you know, the vast majority of elected officials, and I’ve worked with a lot of elected officials as city manager, they care about getting stuff done, and you care about getting stuff done. But they don’t care about how it gets done. And you do. You take, you know, you’ve gotten very interested in how the government works in municipal finance and trying to make it work better, not just produce more of the things that you and your constituents want, but actually be more effective and efficient. So I said, well, that’s really nice and I deeply appreciate your sentiments but I’m a Catholic. And so what does that got to do with it? There are Catholics who are city managers. I said, Phil, I’m a Catholic. When the Pope dies, I could write a really great cover letter. But I’m not going to get an interview with the College of Cardinals, right? Because I haven’t been a priest. I haven’t been a Monsignor. I haven’t been a Bishop. I haven’t been an Archbishop. I haven’t been a cardinal. How am I gonna be the Pope? Right? So you think I should be the city manager? How am I going to get a job as a city manager? I have not been you know, I’ve not worked you know, in in city government. I’ve been an elected official. I still think you should. So three years later, after I’ve worked for this environmental, I worked with elected and staff people all over California and beyond, I was heading a column, I my journalism background, I, after I left the council, I began to write to try to explain to people how government works, because frankly, most journalists have only very superficial understanding. Because they cover it as if it’s kind of like the sports page right who wins you know what’s up what’s down? What’s the latest scandal and there’s very little effort to explain why government does work …. is the most important of which is, that many of the things that people complain about, they are responsible for it right? The government is so slow and so, you can’t get stuff done. And then the minute government does something that they don’t want, whoa, wait a minute, slow down. We need more process. We got to assemble people you know, stop. Wait a minute, give us you know, we want to have a public records request. Um, so those have consequences right. When you when you when you throw sand in the gears, maybe for great reasons, right. You don’t want your neighborhood bulldozed for toxic waste dump. You don’t want you know, somebody to hire their, their cousin. So you develop these rules, you develop these laws, you develop these processes. And then government is really slow and you scratch your head, well, why the hell is it so slow? And all this red tape and process? And so what I tried to do in my writing was to explain, you know, why is it the government is ….? Did people just get up one day and say, Wow, let’s make a really let’s invest the DMV, let’s see if we can make something that’s, you know, just miserable for you. And so, you know, I didn’t actually have a title to my column. But if I’d had a title to my column, it would have been why smart people in government do stupid things. And it’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because they’re trapped in obsolete and bureaucratic structures that have often been designed deliberately to make government less threatening and as a result, less effective. So, so I sat down to write about how city managers are chosen. And I had a particular concern in mind, but that’s irrelevant. And what I argued, which I think has improved in the 30 years since I wrote that piece, 25. What, what I argued is that most city councils have had very little experience selecting executives, right. You know, when you run for city council, you say, Oh, add more cops, you know, we’ll add crossing guards or you know, we’ll slow down roads in our community. You don’t say I’ll be really good at choosing an executive to lead you know, my city government. Most people don’t even know there are city managers and have very little clue that they’re the chief executive officers in in the vast majority of American cities. They think the mayor is in charge. And for more than half the cities in America, the mayor is not a figurehead, but doesn’t have executive power. And so, so City Council, city council members get elected, they may never in their entire life and career have chosen an executive to any kind of process, right? Maybe they’re, maybe they’re a lawyer and they they’ve hired a secretary and helped, you know, choose partners. Maybe they’re a real estate broker, right. And they hired an office manager. Maybe they’re in you know, in some corporation and they’re, you know, Assistant Vice President, but they’ve never hired the CEO. And and we expect them to hire in cases you know, the city’s outlet had a 100 million dollar budget, a $250 million budget, a $5 billion budget. And most recently a 750 million dollar budget. These are serious, significant institutions. And the people in charge of selecting the chief executive, they default to two things, experience and credentials. So the credentials are well, have you been a city manager before, right, Let’s try you out. There’s not a job you learn on the on the fly. So, so in the same sense that I thought it was very unlikely I’d ever be a city manager because I hadn’t worked my way up the ladder. You know, and I wasn’t thinking about doing it for myself. I was thinking about the way in which in a particular city, a city manager has been chosen who took a very hard line at chopping the budget and seemed utterly unconcerned about the human cost. At any rate, the other thing is experience, right? So we’re a Latino community. We want someone who speaks Spanish and is Latino themselves and certainly had some experiences working with the multicultural community or we’re a coastal community, right. We want to work with a coastal commission. We want a man that understands coastal issues, one who will understand, you know, the kind of community that has a lot of tourism. We’re a big city, we’re a big urban city, you know, we don’t want someone from some small city. And so they look for experience, and particularly experience or, you know, we want to revitalize our downtown. What did you do? In your last city did you revitalize the downtown? And, and those are perfectly reasonable, rational, no one would think that’s stupid. But my point was it’s short sighted. Because in fact, the city manager doesn’t revitalize the downtown, the city manager doesn’t arrest people, the city manager doesn’t collect garbage. A city managers in charge of creating and sustaining and improving a high performing organization. That’s your job. That’s your real job. And he can change in…. and this pandemic is an example of it. Right? Um, you know, who got hired in America as a city manager for their abilities to deal with a pandemic? No one. So if there’s a pandemic and at worst prices, you know, in a generation, how would you lead? That is not a question they ask. So, so what really counts is how you lead. What’s your, not your you know, some people talk about management style. I hate that. That’s like you know, you wear white shirts, I wear blue shirts. It’s really philosophy, it’s really value, it’s really character. And it’s really, you know, what is the approach that, that you take toward leading people and managing resources. Things can be managed, money, equipment, technology. People need to be led. And to be an effective city manager in the vast majority of communities, you have to be good at both. And nobody’s perfect at them. But just because you’ve worked in a particular kind of environment, doesn’t necessarily give you all the tools you need for the myriad and changing and dynamic challenges that you face. So I wrote this, this little essay, published it in the newspaper, but while I was writing it, I thought, you know I learned in college that you could write about war, poverty, disease, and nobody much pays attention. But if you write about, you know, the 50’s dance at your school, I know what everybody’s got an opinion. So I thought, well, let me include in this essay about how city managers are chosen, let me take an ad from a local city and make fun of it. Right. Because 99% of the ads in 1998 were the city of blank is looking for an experienced city manager or assistant city manager with experience in labor relations, Public Works, law enforcement, you know, etc. And then typically they throw in a line about you know, whatever the issue does, ….. you know, wastewater treatment plant. And, and that was a yet right we’re looking for somebody who’s been there done that. So I call up Azusa, which was a town, just three towns over from us. Not a good reputation in the in the world municipal management. So I thought, well, they’ll have a stupid ad and I can make fun of it and I can prove the point that, you know, city councils are short sighted. So I call the personnel department and I asked for them to fax me over the ad. And they do and I read it and it says the City of Azusa is looking for a hands on visionary who will take our city and community to the next level. And so I wadded up and threw it in the wastebasket, because I thought, well, that doesn’t prove my point. [Laughter] My point is, and then a couple days later, I fished it, I literally fished it out of the wastebasket. And I unfolded it and I smoothed it out and I said, well that’s what I want to be when I grow up. I’ll be a hands on visionary who will take a community to the next level. So I wrote a cover letter. And I got an interview. And, and the mayor after I got hired unanimously 5-0. the mayor said, here’s our new city manager who barely made the cut at each stage in the process, which was a joke, but it was true, right? I mean, I only got consideration because I had a good cover letter. I only got a second interview, because I said some things that resonated with the City Council. And then they thought, okay, well, we’ll, we’ll put him in the finals. But, you know, at the end of the day, we’ll pick an experienced credentialed city manager. And instead, I was able to demonstrate not only that I had some good ideas, but I had some fairly practical approaches to getting them done. And so they gave me an opportunity. So I did that for six years. I loved it and Azusa has made enormous progress, and as a result I got recruited to go to Ventura and I didn’t go to Ventura because I was looking for, you know, a town by the beach or bigger salary or nicer neighborhood. I went to Ventura because I just read the book, Good to Great. And Ventura was the classic, good community that was aspiring to be great. And I thought, well, here is a once in a lifetime kind of case study. Can you take an organization that’s been doing really, you know, B+ A- work and, and take it to the next level? And I did that for nine years. And, frankly, at the end of about nine years the politics had changed. We had just gone through the Great Recession. People were tired of change and tired of pushing the envelope and so a majority of the city council said we want a more traditional city manager. And so I honored that, that request and so that well, that’s the end of my short public service career fired by city council. No one is ever going to hire me again. So I went to work for my church, and I was a parish administrator and trying to figure out how to apply my talents to, to the mission in Ventura, you know, a very diverse constituency serving the downtown in the Latino West Valley. And then I got recruited both by the City of Santa Ana for to be their city manager and by the City of Los Angeles, to be one of these four deputy mayors and be put in charge of not only a $5 billion budget, but also fixing government to make it work better. I did that for two years. I loved that job. I was not looking for another job and then Santa Monica, which is you know, one of the premier communities in all of California, both in the government and the community itself, long history of progressive achievements and pushing the envelope and they said we want to we want you to come. In fact, the recruiter said, one of the council members said, we don’t want a city manager like Rick Cole. We want Rick Cole. [Laughter] So, so they hired me again unanimously, 7-0, and for five years we we did some fantastic work. As with every place, made some mistakes, had some frustrations, but overall incredible five years that just came to an end.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. I want to talk about kind of your, your vision for like what local government can and should be, but I definitely wanna talk a little bit about your, the end of your time in Santa Monica because, and, and I’ll speak for myself here, but I was shocked when I read it and like I was assumed you’d be there long as you wanted and, and like, you know Santa Monica would always be this example with this, you know, innovative and like interesting city manager that you know, you can follow and learn from and I don’t know the best place to start kind of the story of sort of your wind down. I know there’s been some articles about it and the paper is out there. But maybe this is the beginning is with the COVID-19 crisis like what was that like, the response to that for you and kind of how were you managing through it? And then I don’t know if we want to we don’t have to tick tock through kind of your leaving but maybe I’m just curious how that kind of went and kind of what led you to walk away.

Rick Cole

So it’s kind of a blur. Now when the when the pandemic hit, you know, we immediately went into overdrive, activated our Emergency Operations Center. People were doing heroic work. I told people we were doing four jobs, right. We’re trying to keep as much of the city government running to provide key services as we could and have it work, you know, as effectively as possible with physical distancing, with all of the challenges of suddenly, things that were routine became challenges. Second, we had to deal with a public health crisis. And we were, you know, just ferocious criticism from both sides. You’re not doing enough, you know, people are gonna die. You know, don’t pay attention to the county and the state. Pay attention to me. You know, we were trying to, to, you know, there are 88 cities in Los Angeles County, and we really thought we should try to work with other cities. So I worked closely with the city managers of the four Westside cities, you know, so we would do things together rather than on our own. So there was ferocious criticism from people who said we weren’t doing enough. And then of course, we are the, you know, as it always is with local government. We’re the ones who get the heat from decisions often made above us, right? Why are you Why are you, you know, taking away my freedom, blah, blah, blah. So, we were keeping the lights on. We were dealing with the public health crisis. We were also beginning to grapple with, you know, the incredible cratering of our revenues, Santa Monica, you know, what goes up comes down and Santa Monica have been incredibly privileged by an extraordinarily strong economic base that was the result of 30 years of consistent effort to promote tourism and high end office and retail sales with the Third Street prominent and had been extraordinarily successful. And it allowed us to have a much more robust city government that did amazing things. But all those revenues just went plummeting downward. From $60 million a year in in, you know here’s a city of 8.3 square miles, $60 million in hotel revenue from taxes. And it went to essentially zero, right? In about two weeks. And so that the third job was, you know, sort of you need to deal with the fiscal impacts of all of this. And then finally, there was a how do you how do you rethink the role of government? What are the what are the things that we haven’t done in the past that we need to be doing now, which is, you know, helping, helping folks who can’t pay their rent, helping people who are out of work, helping small businesses that may not be able to reopen, you know, helping neighborhood shopping areas come back to life. So we’re trying to do all four of those things at the same time, working 14 hour days, spending, you know, most of that on zoom and, and a surreal kind of environment and the council, some council members who I think felt somewhat sidelined, as we were, you know, working to manage all these challenges, without, you know, the routine of of council meetings, said, you know, what are you doing about because, because of your business background, they were concerned that we weren’t moving quickly enough given the revenue fall to make immediate layoffs. And so we were challenged. And we were crunching the numbers. We were working those numbers up. But they had a sense of urgency. So they called a special meeting of council and most of it was in closed session, because we’re dealing with labor negotiations, which is allowed to be closed session in California. And, and we had a, you know, we had a very tough discussion about where we stood. And we then went into overdrive to see if we could figure out, you know, how could we survive this huge cut, and we had to navigate both the limited of time that we had for the council to get a plan with the very significant rules and regulations governing labor relations in California. I mean, my instincts were, you know, you get, you get all of the labor leaders from our 12 unions in a room and you lock the door and you try to have them be partners and they might not get everything they want but but you know, you could, you could hammer out something that would make some sense that everybody would hate but because of not because of the ….. so huge. But something that people could live with. That’s impossible. Like it’s impossible physically right? Because can’t get everybody in a room during a virus. And it’s impossible legally because there’s, you know, these incredible rules that you have to follow. So, so we got sideways with, with, with our unions and with a number of folks in the community who, as we were putting together plans, heard, you know, the first draft and the first idea and went, you know, ballistic. We were also out ahead of almost every other community. Right. The council members were right about their sense of urgency. They were ….prescribed. But that they were out ahead of everyone else. And so Santa Monica, that’s a triple A rated community, is one of 12 in in all of California. You know, why are they suddenly talking about, you know, deep cuts and layoffs? You know, nobody else is. Well, a week later, you know, everybody else was, but yeah, we were in that week when everyone was talking about something else. And all of a sudden, we were what’s been described, you know, as the canary in the coal mine. We were, we were the, the first and, and it was incredibly stressful on staff, on me, on the council. And, you know, I am not comfortable with, you know, a blow by blow because I really want the council to be successful. I really want the city to be successful. But, you know, we’re dealing in an environment of sort of super-heated super stressful circumstances. And it became clear that without the full support and trust from the city council and with no community and, and unions already clamoring for my head because I was the guy that was going to slash their services and cut their jobs, that that new leadership would have a better shot. And so, as gracefully as I could, I offered to step aside, and the council was grateful that I was willing to do that, and accepted it. And so I found myself going from 14 hour days and, you know, 37 years of pretty uninterrupted public service to, to as many people in this country and I certainly don’t feel, you know, many people have been hit way harder than me. They’ve lost all their income, double income, or, you know, they’re barely scraping by and have no savings, etc. And then of course, people have been hit by this this virus monster lives so I don’t feel sorry for myself but I suddenly found myself like millions of people in America, out of a job.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. Wow. I mean yeah that’s yeah that is quite the story and the and the like quickness with all how all this hit and just like I don’t know trying to be dynamic and trying to solve problem is so yeah. It’s so hard.

Rick Cole

And it and it goes to you know, if I can take a step back from my experience and again and not just on this pandemic but you know the world doesn’t change, doesn’t change, doesn’t change, and then suddenly it changes right? Seldom with the business and the magnitude of this change. But we, you know, we often, many crises are slow moving. And many crises sneak up on people. And as a result, many crises take people by surprise, right? When 911 happened, like, whoa, wait why are all these people mad at us? When you know, when 2008 happened, whoa, wait a minute, oh, well, how are these banks get into this mess, right? What happened here? People who were paying attention, and in our world today, it’s so hard to pay attention because we’re bombarded by by …. and things that aren’t really the basis of bigger trends. You know what, what’s happened this minute, without really connecting the dots with what’s been happening over the last few months, what’s been happening over the last few years, what’s been happening over the last few decades. And so they miss it, right. You know, suddenly they’re gobsmacked by, you know, like now there’s a pandemic Well, people have been writing about the potential of pandemics and, and the peculiar vulnerability that we have in the global economy and the near misses of SARS, etc, which, you know, perversely has given people more comfort, right? Well, well, that just goes to show you know, don’t have to worry about it. And I’m not gonna say that, you know, I’ve paid a lot of attention to economic threats on the horizon, including pension fund in California and beyond. But I wasn’t paying attention to to pandemic. I was more worried about an earthquake in California, you know, terrorism, you know, because we have some fairly inviting targets in Santa Monica. But it is really important, I think, to take the long view and to think not just about what is happening today, but what has been happening that won’t be happening tomorrow. That you know, and I think that takes time to think. And that’s not just individual city managers, that’s also, you know, a learning, a learning culture in your organization. Because, again, one person can’t be responsible for everything, but you need to have a learning culture where, where folks in public service are paying attention to stuff beyond public service.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. And I think, um, just kind of from my observation, it’s exposed how fragile like some of our systems are and local government is obviously no different both in that and I think you had a quote in the interview to the planning report. I guess it’s been a couple weeks now, but about how we actually need an expanded and more dynamic role for local government. And, and I think that kind of ties in to this, this question of like, how you how you emerge from this crisis and how do you manage crises in the future and, and I guess, kind of, in your view, what, what should local governments be doing to be kind of that dynamic, more dynamic and kind of and better serve their communities?

Rick Cole

So Ben, the most important thing is this, is figuring out what business we’re in. Now, just phrasing, just phrasing it that way causes some people you know, to ….., I am not in business. We are government. Okay, fine. Let’s not say business. What, what is our mission? What is our role? What are we what are we here for and, you know, for the vast majority of my colleagues who I have enormous respect and affection for, when I asked that question, they looked at me like, okay. This is a simple question. You know, we’re in the business of fire and police and parks, and you know, we regulate land use. We have libraries, you know, that’s what we do. We’re a service provider, some of us do buses, some of us pick up the trash and some was contract. That’s, you know, we provide service. That’s what government does. That’s our mission. That’s our role. That’s the business we’re in. We’re in the business of providing services. I think thats 100%. I think we’re in the business of solving problems. And, or delivering results depending on how you want to phrase it. And services are our means that we have now taken for granted as our end. And if you take a historical look at things, that is actually historically true, right. When most people sort of think, well, we’ve always had libraries, right? Well, no, we didn’t have libraries until Ben Franklin organized the first, you know, nonprofit one in Philadelphia. Well, we’ve always had parks. Well, no, parks were owned by rich people and the aristocracy. Public parks, really didn’t come into place till after the French Revolution. We always had police. No, Sir Robert Peel invented, you know, municipal police in the 1820s in London because of the widespread crime and disorder of industrializing cities. We’ve always had fire departments. No. The City of Cincinnati started the first municipal fire department in 1853 because in 1852, the City of Cincinnati burned down and proved that the old ways of fighting fires were inadequate. And the city government stepped in and created a fire department. And that made a lot of sense. So other people stood up fire departments. And if you go to public health, public schools, public, whatever, these were invented to solve problems. And now we sort of take them as legacies like well, that’s what we we’ve always done it, right. And my example from the private sector, you know, rubbed some people the wrong way, but everybody in America, you know, over 15 years old, rented a video or went with their parents to rent a video at Blockbuster at some point in their life. And often, every week for years at a time. And when Netflix came along, to challenge, Blockbuster, Netflix was laughed off. You know who’s going to wait three days to get a DVD in the mail from Netflix when you can drive to a Blockbuster and in 20 minutes of every home in America, they’re, you know, it’s open till 10 or 11 o’clock at night and you know, you stand in line and five minutes later, you’ve got a video and you are headed home to, you know, pop the popcorn. Netflix is a joke, right? It’s, you know, it maybe isn’t, you know, at best a niche market. But Netflix was not in the business of renting videos. Netflix knew it was in the business of delivering content. And as soon as streaming became available, they said let’s ditch this mail stuff. Let’s jump on streaming. Blockbuster was like, streaming, ah, you know, that’s got to have a really fast moto. That’s never really going to catch on. And they’re out of business, right? The greatest video rental store business in history, you know, one that had thousands of those blue and yellow signs all over America, vaporized.  So when I talk about this, people say, well, yeah, that’s true. But it’s not like, you know, the City of Culver City is gonna open up a police department next door to the Santa Monica police department and say, Hey, we can get you, you know, we’ll answer your 911 calls faster and get people out there quicker. Government’s different than business. Well, not really, in the sense that people pay for government, and they pay for products in business. And they’ll stop paying for stuff that they don’t want or need. And so, yeah, I mean, for a while they have to pay or they take your house if you don’t pay your property tax. But at some point, people say it’s not worth it to me. And if if nobody’s reading books, and nobody’s going to the library, you may have some passionate library supporters. But if the majority of people say, you know what, I like Amazon, and I get my content online, libraries either have to in the business of education or they have to go out of business because if they’re in the business of lending out books, that has a limited shelf life and, and the same with everything else we do. For every dollar that Americans spend on police, they spend $2 on private security. You know, our market share has gone from 100% to less than less than a third. That’s not a good trend. You know, our bus system was down before the pandemic was down 25% and, you know, now it’s been wiped out 75% of the of the 75% has been wiped out. So, you know, and that’s not going to come back day after tomorrow. So so the first thing we have to think about is, what are the problems that need solving? Then they’re different, right? They’re different than than in 1853 in Cincinnati, Ohio when you had, you know, the buildings were made of wood, and we heated our homes with fire and people smoked in their beds, we needed a fire department. But in 2020 you still need emergency medicine. ….. Is emergency medicine best delivered by four superbly trained physically fit guys who are by the way very well paid to…

Ben Kittelson

driving a million dollar piece of equipment. [Laughter]

Rick Cole

That gets two and a half miles to the gallon, to arrive, you know, winding its way through traffic. And we there are still fires, we still need, we still need fire suppression, but there are far fewer fires than there used to be, which is a great success. But we need to be thinking about what are the needs of 2020. And by focusing in on the needs of 1920 instead of 2030, we shortchange a lot of things that people would find valuable and would pay for and would enthusiastically contribute to not just in the form of tax dollars, but actually be partners with us, which is another thing that I think we’ve lost sight of. The old before there were, you know, department of affordable barns or before they were barns or us, the way you built a barn on the frontier, was you mobilized the community. Everybody pitched in. You didn’t, you didn’t buy a barn from the private sector, you didn’t give given a barn from the public sector. The community rallied around and people helped each other. And there isn’t enough of that. The homelessness crisis, you could have, you could give the government all the money in the world, and that doesn’t help people who need to work for a sense of self worth and self sufficiency. It doesn’t help people who, who’ve lost their way in life and who just feel completely worthless. They need to find a job or face or family or friends or a cause. And government is not as good at that as churches and mentors and neighbors and, and businesses to step forward and help with this profound crisis. So, so this may seem a little philosophical. But I think it’s literally at the heart of the dilemma that we face, is that we continue to say, well, we don’t have enough money to do things that we’ve always done. Okay.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, I totally agree with what you said. And I think one of the, one of the things that I that I’m kind of been wrestling with and thinking about is like, is how do you how do you how do you say, we’re not just gonna, like add this service, but we’re gonna we’re gonna evaluate what we do as an organization, and enter and meet the new needs. And so for and I think that’s kind of some of what you’re getting at when you talk about a 21st century government. And so, I guess, I don’t know if this is a way to get at making it more tangible for our listeners, but what kind of, taking this these ideas of like how we solve problems and what are the new problems that you know local governments are gonna be facing that our community our community’s needs solving. Like how do we, what’s your ideas on how we how we make that more tangible for local governments and what they need to change and kind of adjust to, to kind of shift that philosophy?

Rick Cole

Great question. And it’s a way of taking the philosophy and the, and the abstraction down to the reality, what do I do now? And I would offer 10 words. Do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t. Right. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. So have a clear, what is the problem you’re trying to solve? Right? Trying to solve homelessness, trying to solve crime, trying to solve education. So, so be clear and adopt some smart goals, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely. You know, we want to reduce homelessness by 20% by the end of next year. Okay, so you take the four principles of Compstat, timely and accurate data, how many homeless people you have now? Where are they? Why are they homeless? What are their needs? What are the barriers that keep them from getting a house? So you start with timely and accurate data, then is development of tactics right. Okay. Well, we found out that 20% of the folks have mental illness. So let’s enlist the county mental illness folks to help us with teams. And so the third principle is rapid deployment of resources, right? You don’t do a five year comprehensive plan. That’s great. I’m not against five year comprehensive plans. But you figure out what are we going to do next month? We’re going to deploy on an experimental basis you know, one cop, one nurse and one clinician from the local county mental health department. We’re going to let you know we’re going to focus on in this area of our community, we’re going to see what kind of impact it has. And then the fourth principle is relentless follow up. So you evaluate, you know, how many people did you see? What was the impact of that, compared to other things you’ve done before. You compare it to what’s been done in other communities. And you at the end of that month say, either well, we don’t have enough data. So let’s do it for another month, or, hey, this is great. Let’s do more, let’s put out two teams this month, or this is really not working. Let’s do something else. Right. Do more of what works, do less of what doesn’t. The, we’re so committed to in our budgets, right. We have last year’s budget, and you know, inflation is about 3%. So, you know, we’re gonna add 3% or we want to do a new program, hire four more people. We’re, we’re, we’re so wedded to the status quo, that we we lose track of the need to constantly adjust based upon results, right. And track those results with performance management, not in some punitive way. That’s that’s where the public sector and the private sector, I think, differ. The best private companies do this well, the worst private companies do this horribly. In the worst private companies, you meet your numbers or heads roll, right. You didn’t make your quota. You’re fired. We’re going to put someone else. It has to be accountability. But in the public sector, you can say, What went wrong? What you know, did you not deploy the tactic? Did you did you make a mistake? Was the mistake, or something we can rectify? Did you need more help from, did county mental health just not provide the people and so you couldn’t put the teams out? Let’s figure out how to solve the problems collaboratively in teams. Again, the best private companies have that attitude. If you’re not pulling your weight, that’ll become obvious in a team process. But in the long run, most people won’t do a good job. Most people will rise to the occasion. And most people will be excited about seeing positive progress right there. Wow, look, we, you know, we tried this and it didn’t work. So we tried something else. And it did work. And we tried more of it. And it worked even better, and one that made us think about trying something else. And we tried that and it works even better than that. And now we’re making progress. And we’re actually on track to hit our number of 20% reduction in homelessness. And then you begin to create that that flywheel effect that Collins talks about in Good to Great and you continue to do more of what works and and the stuff that doesn’t work, you say, well, you know, I’m sorry, someone may like doing that or someone might be loyal to doing that, but it is no longer that relevant. And you gradually shift government to be more nimble, more entrepreneurial, you, you shift rather than process to empowerment and accountability, right, where people are empowered to do their job, to take some risks, to try some things, to take the initiative, and if if they’re not cutting it after a long period of time, which they’ve given the right resources and reasonable expectations, well, then they need to be held accountable. On the other hand, if they are achieving great things, and they need more resources, and you want to want to incentivize, you want to solve the problem, that that we’re not in the business of running buses. We’re in the business of getting people where they need to go. And if running buses is not the best way to do that, you run less buses, and you do something else. And that’s the way ultimately you can make progress.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, no. And I love those two examples. The I mean, the fire one that we talked about and like, Hey, we solved this problem, now let’s, let’s shift focus to a new problem. And then and then your homeless one where it’s, hey, this are battling homelessness, like this is a new problem that like, this is how we come up with solutions. I’m curious for your perspective on there are some things that local governments do, where there are conflicting problems that are trying to be solved. And the one that comes to mind for me right now, and this is probably more to do with the work that a couple projects that I’m on for work, but is a land use and, you know, planning and zoning and development. And there’s this this problem that you’ll commit to trying to solve and, you know, trying, you know, development to occur and letting businesses operate and, you know, building new residential units or whatever it is, and then there’s also this problem of that they at the same time trying to solve residents don’t want you know, something totally brand new in the neighborhood, they want to protect their investment of their home or whatever it is. And the last and I was probably the deal. You know, it probably isn’t the cleanest example, but I think I think there are others in local government where you know there’s sometimes conflicting things going on. But what what’s kind of your view on that? Like, how do you how do you get through kind of when there’s not a clear problem that local government is resolving? Or it’s like trying to solve two problems at once that may be, you know, don’t complement each other very well?

Rick Cole

Well, that’s a whole other podcast Ben. [Laughter] Let me give you a quick answer, which is, in Pasadena, when I was mayor, we were we were confronted with that exact problem at the ugly gridlock level. I mean, the intensity of battling was really toxic. And the battle lines were drawn over whether we should grow, right. Pasadena is a great community. Why do we want to wreck it you know, with a bunch of high rises and you know, terrible new development and people saying, well Pasadena is a great community because over time it’s evolved and added new things and can’t just stop and pretend that everything’s perfect and and we never need any new jobs and new businesses and new homes. So really vicious battle lines drawn on those two viewpoints. So the vice mayor and I, who was in the other camp for me politically on this issue, we were forced by a court order to rewrite our general plan and because of the all the lawsuits and the initiatives and everything we’d gotten ourselves so tangled up with, the court had to step in and, and so we changed the subject. Not because we were being manipulative or you know, clever, but because it was the wrong question, you know, Pasadena needed to grow, the question is where should it grow? And how should it grow? Right? Because it doesn’t make any sense to put a six storey building next to a single story home. But maybe that six storey building next to a transit stop would make a lot of sense. So let’s figure out where the growth should be. And there was pretty quick consensus, the growth ought to be around our transit corridors, both the bus and future light rail corridors, and in the downtown, that there ought to be more housing downtown to make it a more you know, not just a place where the sidewalks rolled up at eight o’clock at night. And, and then what kind of development right and so are the developments that would actually serve the needs.  There ought to be supermarkets in the neighborhoods that didn’t have supermarkets, right. That would be good. The jobs in the places where people need jobs. They’re, but we ought not to just allow bad things to happen. That would be short sighted. So we went from, you know, really angry voices on both sides, you know, wow, you never compromise, you know, you people are trying to wreck our town, to well, I was never against all development. I mean, that was, that was just not true. I, you know, I never was, even though they had never seen a project that they liked on the part of the anti growth folks, and then the pro growth folks, well, we were never for, you know, just any kind of growth. We were always for high quality growth, even though they had never not opposed, they had never not supported, you know, any development anywhere. And suddenly, people began backing away from the extreme positions and denying, oh I was never I never did that, because it became pretty clear that that was unreasonable. To take a position of just you’re against all growth ever again, or you’re in favor of any kind of project that ever gets proposed. That’s a kind of a moronic polarization. And it’s sort of typical of a lot of moronic organizations in today’s society where we are asking the wrong question, you know, are you for or against homeless? That doesn’t make any sense. What do, you know what are the ways in which we can peel this issue apart and begin to make progress? Where are the areas of common ground? Where are the areas where you can be effective? So that’s my view.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, it’s finding that the right question I guess not, not the two questions are, are in conflict. It’s shifting. That makes sense to me.

Rick Cole

And the environment of dialogue, right, where you’re not saying, now hear this, the government is talking. You get people. You know, my friend Dan Camus said public hearings are that place in American society where no one listens. You know, you don’t want people lining up to give three minute speeches where they’re for or against something. You want people around, once we get past physical distancing, you want people around a round table from different viewpoints, figuring out together where the common ground is. And that’s an art. But it’s, it’s, it’s an overdue art. It’s the art of democracy.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, I love that. Um, one thing I wanted to make sure I asked you about, and I realized we are a little bit over our time that we had scheduled. And it was something you said in an article I was reading, about shifting and you mentioned it a little bit in your about your own career path is shifting from screening for when we’re hiring a local government of screening for credentials to looking for potential, and I mean, I agree like a 100%. I think this would be really like an interesting, but this is a pretty radical, like shift for local governments. I mean, it’s …

Rick Cole

I don’t think so.

Ben Kittelson

You don’t think so? I mean, okay, well, I mean, go ahead.

Rick Cole

The radical shift is thinking but again, if you look at history, I used to do round tables with with my staff in Ventura, I still do it in, I still did it to be past tense in Santa Monica. But I’ve just randomly invite, you know, folks from different departments and different levels in the organization to sit around and have a conversation and one time I even tried, I organized, some with people who work for the city for less than a year, and people who work for the city for more than 25 years. And I just found it interesting, you know, to talk about, you know, their jobs and and their careers. And the folks who’d been with the city more than 25 years had all started in a different job, typically much lower than in the organization. And they were hired on their potential, right. They were they were hired as a Rec leader, they were hired as a, you know, a management analyst 3 or 1 or whatever, however that works. And, and they were hired because they were bright people who are interested in public service. And, some of them, of course, fell into it. But many of them, you know, had a kind of a generalized view, I want to I want to help people and people will go work for my local government. We didn’t, we didn’t have stringent, you know, you know, this programmed, are you thoroughly versed in, you know, affordable housing policy, what’s your position on blah, blah, blah. They were they were bright people. And then they got trained, right and, and they grew and they were encouraged and coached to grow. And they stuck around and they became intensely loyal to the city into the organization. So I don’t think it’s actually that radical. I think we just need to go back a little bit to the days when, when we looked for people. So we started a Management Fellow program in, in Santa Monica, for people just straight out of graduate school, you know, no, no expertise. We weren’t testing them on, you know, do you know about this area of subject matter? They were obviously bright people who want to pursue public service. We had a pretty intensive selection process and I think you have to have a talent pool and you need to look for talent and passion. And to the extent that you can judge this in a public hiring process, you want to look for character, you know, people’s people’s work ethic. Are they in it to you know make a lot of money. Well, they probably shouldn’t be in the public sector. Are they in it to, you know, rapidly rise to the rank so they can, you know, have the prestige of having a big office and a lot of plaques on the wall. That’s probably not what you want in your future leaders. Do you want people who are passionate about solving problems, care about people, you know, have demonstrated through their, their, their previous jobs and schooling, you know, that they were good team members. You know, there are a lot, you know, obviously, we have city engineers, we have police officers, there’s a lot of things that that require subject matter expertise, but a lot of that can be learned on the job and police work proves it, right. They don’t, they don’t hire police sergeants or lieutenants or, you know, occasionally chiefs will come from outside but, but by and large, you know, we grow our own talent and I think there’s a lot to learn from that. I don’t think it’s that radical on it.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. And so well then. So how do you how do you make that like that shift then if you don’t think it’s a radical, what is the shift like policy wise for an HR department?

Rick Cole

Yeah, you’ve got to, you’ve got to shift the policy and sometimes change the rules. And mine used to say that rules are meant to serve people. When they don’t serve people, you don’t change the people, you change the rules. And I have been a rule questioner all my life. Which some people, some people confuse for rule breaker. And I have broken a few rules along the way. [Laughter] Sometimes I’m proud of it, sometimes I’m not. But I actually do believe in rules. I don’t believe in rigid, you know, books of rules. But I think that guidelines are essential for, you know, an effective organization. You need to have clarity, you need to have boundaries, you need to have, you know, a mission and principles and things that you regularly do and, and you better have a damn good reason for not doing it, you know or for doing it differently. But those rules ought to continually evolve and they ought to be you know, it’s like a ship every once in a while you got to take it and put it in port and scrape off the barnacles. Otherwise, the ship becomes more barnacles and it starts getting holes in the in the hole and it sinks. So, you know, you take the rules and every once in a while, you take a look, does this rule still make sense? And that starts most important part of government, which is the people we’re a people business.

Ben Kittelson

Well said.

Rick Cole

All right.

Ben Kittelson

Well, I appreciate you taking the time and I realize we are way over for what we we talked about.

Rick Cole

Well, hopefully some of your listeners stuck out.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. We’ll have to have you back because there’s so much that we didn’t, didn’t even get a chance to touch on. So, before we kind of wrap up, we do have a kind of last question we ask our guests. If you can be the GovLove DJ and you could pick our exit music for today’s episode, what song would you pick?

Rick Cole

Well, the same song of my radio show about city government before I was into government when I was an activist with my nose pressed up against City Hall window, was Taking it to the Streets with the Doobie Brothers road, which is Take This Message To My Brother Out On the Streets, the people in poverty, the people to whom government seems like a, you know, a joke or an enemy. I think ultimately, we’re going to be judged as we all should be by what we do for the least of these.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome, that’s a great pick and a great sentiment. Well, that ends our episode for today and, Rick, thank you so much for coming on and talking with me. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Rick Cole

Thanks so much, Ben.

Ben Kittelson

And for our listeners, GovLove is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. You can reach us online at elgl.org/govlove or on Twitter at the handle @govlovepodcast. You can support GovLove by joining ELGL. Membership is just $40 for an individual $20 for students, or you can sign up your whole organization. As a reminder ELGL 20, our annual conference has been postponed to October 14 through 16th. Hope to see you in Portland this fall. And lastly, subscribe to GovLove on your favorite podcast app. If you are already subscribed, go tell a friend or colleague about this podcast. Help us spread the word that GovLove is the go to place for local government stories. And lastly, GovLove is looking for your feedback. Please visit govlovesurvey.com to tell us a little bit about what you think about the podcast and help us make GovLove better. And with that, thank you for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.


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