Episode Six

Loyal Opposition

 Josh comes into the office looking tense. “Can I talk to you? I’ll need some time, and I’d rather the conversation not be recorded.”

   “Sure, Josh, what’s up?”

   “Mr. Bradley and a few others are badmouthing you because of the cameras. You know I am and always will be on your side, but sometimes I think they have a point. They say it’s unnatural to be on film all the time. It’s like a big-brother-is-watching-you kind of thing. Everyone has secrets, even if they’re not doing anything bad or illegal. We all do some things we don’t want others to see. Like this conversation right now. I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong, but I wouldn’t want Mr. Bradley or anyone else in my department to know I’m in here talking like this. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I do. And I’ve thought hard about this. I don’t want people to feel like I or the city or even the public is breathing down their neck, or that we’re like big brother looking for signs of dissent. That’s not what this is about.

   So let’s start with us right now. You came in and said you didn’t want this conversation filmed. I trust you and have no reason to think that either of us is solving a public problem here, so I immediately agreed. But if we were about to decide something important to the public, or if we were in the middle of a conflict, I would have demanded that the camera be on. At that point, you have a choice. You can continue the conversation on camera, or you can postpone or cancel the conversation. 

   I do worry that the ability of either party to demand the camera might keep certain important conversations from happening. I also worry that having the camera on keeps people from being entirely honest. But we’re trying to fix a serious problem here. It’s not natural and it’s not comfortable to have doctors stabbing us or cutting us open and taking things out of our bodies, but sometimes we let them do that to cure a bigger problem. 

   Our problem today is that people don’t like and don’t trust the government. A lot of folks actually hate us because government has been run in an opaque way that always seems to work out well for rich and powerful people and not so well for people who are poor or weak. It seems to me that, despite the discomfort and inhibiting effect, we need to be super-transparent to win back the trust that government has lost and to protect the people who’ve been disenfranchised by the opaqueness of the previous system.”

   “But your forced transparency is encouraging the public to fight us and even disrespect us. We have people coming in to demand the most ridiculous things. We had a guy in here yesterday demanding that we fix his car because his tire and wheel were wrecked when he hit a pothole. Mr. Bradley said it was his responsibility to miss the pothole. The guy blew up, saying it was our responsibility to keep the roads smooth and safe. Then Mr. Bradley blew up, and the whole thing ended badly. Now the guy is saying he’s going to take us to court and use the film to show how the public is being treated.”

   “What do you think?”

   “I agree with Mr. Bradley. I think it’s a driver’s responsibility to watch the road and miss the obstacles. If he were driving along and hit a big rock or a deer or a person in the road, he couldn’t possibly come to us for damages.”

   “This is a good example, actually. I can see both sides, can’t you? It’s true that drivers have to watch the road. It’s also true that it’s our responsibility to keep the roads smooth and safe. If Mr. Bradley refused to listen and lost his temper, he’ll probably end up being embarrassed, but isn’t it better for a public official to be embarrassed than for the public to feel chronically humiliated and impotent?”

   “But people need to have some respect . How can they respect us if we don’t have any power?”

   “What makes you think you have no power?”

   “Everything we do is saved to be used against us. We’re being overwhelmed with complaints. We’re spending all our time defending ourselves from the local crazies.”

   “Right now, power and respect aren’t the issue. The issue is trust. Another issue is participation and ownership. We’re public servants. Bureaucrats tend to forget this, but everyone who comes in here is our boss. We still have tremendous power. The cameras just help to keep us honest. On the other hand, I get what you’re saying about the crazies. And I’m worried about the increase in complaints. Let me think about this a day or two, will you? There must be some way to deal with this.”

   “No problem. I’ll be thinking about it, too.”

   “Thanks for bringing this in.”

  Rebecca starts asking around. She finds that several departments are being harassed beyond their ability to respond. Complaints are definitely increasing. Some are legitimate. Many are, indeed, quite crazy. The cameras and new customer-first attitude seem to be attracting attention seekers who don’t care how they look or what they say. They just want to be on camera and get some attention from bureaucrats who are afraid to look rude throwing them out of the office. She decides to try something. It takes a week to write up her proposal, but she’s ready on Monday morning.

 Monday morning, at the management meeting—the meeting attended by the deputy mayor and 20 department heads. Rebecca proposes a new department.

   “I suggest we create a Department of Dispute Resolution. I know many of you are being overwhelmed by disputes, complaints, and crazies, so I want to try setting up a new department to handle these problem situations. Of course, you’ll continue to run your departments as usual, doing your best to satisfy the folks who come to you. However, as soon as you feel the situation is getting out of control or is taking too much time, you can send the case to Dispute Resolution. There it’ll be handled by trained facilitators, mediators, social workers and religious professionals, who will come in as conflict resolution consultants. 

    Dispute Resolution case managers will have the power to request any film. They’ll be able to call any of you or any of your staff to meetings. In fact, they’ll be mediating between you and the people complaining against you. This you will sometimes find uncomfortable. However, the great benefit to you is the ability to hand problem situations and problem people off to professionals trained and paid to handle them. 

   The written proposal I’ll send to each of you today describes the details – how the system will work and how we’ll pay for it. Please take a look and let me know your objections or suggestions. I’m asking first for a feasibility study, then a set-up phase, then full implementation. And, of course, we can make changes all along the way, anytime we see a better way. 

   I know most of you are sitting there hating this. You are men, most of you, and you have gotten to where you are by solving the problems that come to you. Sending a problem to someone else is like going to a therapist, and I know we all hate that, especially men. But please open your minds and think out of the box. 

   We live in a pretty crazy society, one that lays enormous stress on everyone, especially those near the bottom of the hierarchy. The people we call crazies are people being pressed beyond their ability to respond rationally. Some of them, of course, have legitimate gripes, and we need to recognize that and act accordingly. But many of them are really crazy, and none of us has time to offer them the counseling and support they need. A Department of Dispute Resolution could offer appropriate, professional help to people who really need it but can’t or won’t get it otherwise. We might be able to make a significant contribution to the overall mental health of our community. In fact, I think I can get this entirely funded by grants, at least at first. So please, I hope you’ll give this a chance.” 

Two years later

The case of Anytown is appearing in scientific journals and doctoral theses all over the world. In a little over a year, crime is down 80%. The city jail is usually empty, and even juvenile delinquency is down 50%. Not one homeless person sleeps on the streets, and the problem of crazies harassing the bureaucrats has disappeared. Anytown still has some crazies, of course, but everyone knows what to do with them. Take them by the hand and lead them down to DDR (the Department of Dispute Resolution). Every case is handled by a social worker or a student studying to be a social worker. These social workers know all the formal and informal resources available in the city, and they know what they’re supposed to do: solve the problem or find someone who can.

   Solving the problem takes time, energy, creativity and skill. It costs money to help crazies. However, the money the DR costs is more than covered by the increase in tax-paying residents and the reduction in crime, jail time, legal fees, emergency mental health, ambulance rides, and homeless shelters. In fact, Anytown’s DDR is a profit center. It’s still getting grants, with students and staff from other cities coming in for dispute resolution training. Everyone now agrees wholeheartedly with Rebecca’s dictum regarding people problems: a stitch in time saves nine. 

   Rebecca’s fame is growing. Millions around the world are glued to the Anytown website. There’s a growing municipal intuition that she won’t be Anytown’s mayor much longer.

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