The Danger and Opportunity in Overcoming DONE's Leadership Crisis

NC POLITICS--"In Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters.  One represents danger and the other represents opportunity." - John F. Kennedy 

On Friday, Grayce Liu, the General Manager of LA's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) announced she is stepping down.  To many, this is welcomed news, but I am more concerned with the outlook and abilities of her successor.  Prioritizing the needs of the actual NC's over those of the Department itself has been an ongoing source of friction and frustration. 

Truthfully, Ms. Liu's struggles weren't entirely of her own making.  As Interim GM, after lobbying many NC's for support, she was put in a role she had neither the process skills nor the innovative expertise needed to direct a department that in many ways still operates in uncharted territory.  Former mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, elevated her, saying he was a proponent of "promoting from within." 

Promoting someone from within to be DONE's General Manager was/is a mistake. 

Being President of the P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council (or any neighborhood council) is time consuming to the point where personal relationships suffer... But I rely on friends and colleagues outside the NC box as sounding boards for my issues with DONE.  I have gained valuable insight from highly skilled executives in the private sector as to why our NC system is not adequately supported by DONE. 

LA's Neighborhood Council System is a Unique Experiment

The NC system was created to make the City more responsive to its people.  Being elected to a volunteer position isn't exceptional, it happens on corporate boards all the time.  However, being publicly elected at a polling place, using secret ballots, after running an election campaign, all coupled with the political maneuvering we've come to expect in a democracy, is exceptional.  It's also very valuable in a city where a mere 15 representatives formally govern over 4 million people sprawled out over 500 square miles. 

Because every NC operates within its own unique rules, structures, and organizational cultures, Mayor Garcetti, to whom DONE's GM directly reports, can't just bring in someone from another city in the same way we recruited William Bratton to take command of the LAPD.  While there are similar hyper local council systems out there (New York City's Community Boards for example), there's nothing that matches the complexity of ours. 

Not Hiring "The Way We've Always Done It"

This will be DONE's seventh GM in less than 20 years; movie studio execs and professional Baseball managers have longer shelf lives.  Hiring from within is still the wrong answer.  It's even more wrong if the Mayor looks to promote someone from inside DONE itself; that didn't end well the last time, and it won't again.  The Department is foundationally dysfunctional and staff morale is at an all-time low.  One of the key reasons Liu failed was because she "grew up" in an already dysfunctional environment.  She wouldn't know what operational efficacy at DONE looks like because she had never seen it or knew it, there. 

Whoever takes the reins needs to see things with a "fresh set of eyes."  The next GM can't be someone who was trained and/or mentored in DONE's workplace culture, as they would be guilty by association from the get-go in the eyes of the NCs they're tasked to support, assist, and facilitate, instead of burdening, obstructing and policing. 

Change Agents Need Only Apply

When Bratton took over the city's police department in the wake of the Rampart Scandal, it was the poster child for broken urban law enforcement.  When he left, LAPD was viewed as the model to be emulated by other US cities. Organizations in chaos need someone who says, "The way we've always done it isn't working."  However, skilled managers with portfolio in directing a wholly unique citywide system of neighborhood councils aren't out there in droves waiting to be poached.  It will take patience and effort to find the right person. 

"Hire Slowly...

...Fire quickly" is the management mantra for recruiting and retaining personnel, but as the latter directive isn't part of LA's municipal culture, the hiring part is what's important.  This should not be an instance where the Mayor quickly predetermines a preferred candidate and asks the City Council to rubber-stamp his choice.  For this particular role, the City Council must be proactive in advising on and consenting to someone who can shepherd the 99 current NCs to their potential as well run and effective advocacy groups. 

Finding candidates with the vision and an executable strategy based on the realities of the current system and not a blue-sky, what-if, increased budget wish list is where true success lies.  Today's managers must make do with what they have, and not spend a majority of time lobbying for what they would like to have in order to get the job done. 

Seek True Expert Insights

The problem with our civic leaders taking the "10,000 ft. view" of managing DONE's complexity is that things look much different (and realistic) on the ground.  DONE is infamous for leadership and staff who've worked with NC's but never on an NC, yet they regard themselves as "experts."  They are not.  Who has the best take on what's needed for someone to be a successful DONE general manager?  Perhaps, some of the best and brightest from within the NC system itself; those with proven track records in a managing an NC well. Now, I'm not advocating NCs choose the new GM, but I'm certain each City Councilmember knows a few knowledgeable and astute NC members within their districts they can tap in order to provide some real-world experience.  Whether councilmembers solicit insight from these folks on an informal basis, or call for the creation of a search committee, giving key NC members an opportunity to be part of the process would lead to a better outcome. 

Reversing the Trend

For my time in the NC system, and in further studying its history from day one, LA's NC system has been in a state of permanent crisis, and the danger is that it's on a straight path to becoming a failed experiment. Right now, we have an opportunity to coalesce and find leadership with the skill sets to lead DONE, and support our 99 NC's towards realizing the potential we've been talking about for years, but never seem to attain. 

Success is achievable.  The NC system can work far better and can even ease the burdens on our overworked City Council members. But it won’t happen by doing things the way we've always done them.  I urge the City's Legislative branch, the City Council, to exercise its executive branch oversight and take a proactive role in finding DONE's next leader.  The future of LA, its neighborhood council system, and the thousands of volunteers who serve on them, depends on it.



(Brad S. Kane is the President of the P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council.  The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Council or CityWatch.)