Last night, I attended a retirement party for a friend and former colleague turning in his badge after a long, exemplary career in law enforcement. After getting to know him as a colleague in his role as statewide gang and drug task force coordinator, we kept in touch after I left OJP (first to the BCA, then to freelance web work, now to the nonprofit world).
After over 30 years serving the people of Minnesota, Bob will not be easily replaced. That much is perfectly clear. Indeed, what struck me most strongly about the night’s recognition was a reminder of what I already knew, and respected, about Bob. Speaker after speaker (from supervisors to peers, prosecutors to judges) talked about Bob’s passion for his work and his ability to bring people together to get the job done.
Without a doubt, Bob’s impression on me early in my career will stick with me going forward. Anywhere he goes, he commands respect. He has an uncanny ability to get people to the table to get things done, all because he is an excellent communicator and effective relationship builder. But Bob is old school.
This past summer, I completed a capstone course to fulfill degree requirements for the Master of Public Administration portion of the dual-degree program I am currently enrolled in at St. Paul’s Hamline University.
The course, as I understood it, was designed as final polishing to culminate a master’s degree worth of graduate study in the discipline and practice of public administration and prepare students for leaving the program with a pretty red bow. As such, the course functions as one last opportunity for instilling two key values emphasized by the program: effective leadership and collaborative problem solving. Indeed, cross-sector and cross-functional collaboration were such an emphasis that we actually spent about a third of our classroom sessions with students completing their work in the Master of Nonprofit Management degree program for purposes of cross-pollination. Faculty clearly feel strongly, as I do, that 21st problems require 21st century solutions and a little old-fashioned teamwork in order to navigate this brave new world of ours.
Yep, a little old-fashioned teamwork. While arguably a gross over-simplification of the enormous challenge we face negotiating the difficult terrain ahead of us (fraught with political and logistical peril), I am very intentional in choosing this way of description.
One of the most important conversations we had in the capstone course was about a topic those working in the field of public administration know well: the changing of the guard currently taking place. More specifically, we talked about the conflict of the new guard and the old guard as new ways of doing things collide with the way things have always been done. The instructor, a senior public administrator and self-proclaimed member of the old guard, took great interest in the topic and expressed concern about the relationship between the new and the old.
According to Hennepin County, over half of their workforce is from the baby boomer generation and can be expected to retire in the coming years. That’s an enormous amount of institutional knowledge walking out the door. But more concerning, in my opinion, are the countless external relationships walking out the door with them. That’s why it’s so critical that we take this time for old guard and new guard to learn from each other, not just in realm the of knowledge transfer but more so in the way of meaningful, productive discourse about what it means to be an effective public administrator.
If the old guard overly depends on personal relationships and experience, the new guard overly depends on the digital world. Google doesn’t have all the answers. Sometimes a 45 second phone call to a good contact at the right agency returns better information than hours of surfing the web. That will never change.
I said before Bob is old school, and I didn’t lie. Bob doesn’t Twitter. He’s hardly on Facebook. But his cell phone might as well be glued to his ear and there doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t settle over a domestic draft beer with willing company. And if there’s something you need, he knows who to call. But one of the things I really respected about Bob and I think made him so much more effective than similar “old school” types was that he fully understood the power of technology and the importance of information sharing. He wasn’t afraid to ask for help or try new things.
As the new guard replaces a generation of public servants entering their well-deserved retirements, we’ve got big shoes to fill. As someone optimistic about technology in government, the rush of new blood eager to adopt innovative technology is very exciting. But it’s guys like Bob turning in their credentials that gives me pause as I watch the old guard pass the torch. Technology holds tremendous potential to dramatically cut transaction and communication costs and obliterate barriers, but it’s only a tool. It must be designed and implemented to support our human relationships. If those who see it exclusively as a impediment to those relationships are wrong, equally so are those who see it as a replacement.
Social technology should (and can) strengthen and expand our social and professional networks. But it must be done right so not to isolate and polarize us and further erode our social capital. Ultimately, it’s all about community and relationship building.