A frustrated Sen. Louis Hill recently demanded to know what was happening to a number of government projects that were simply not moving. Senator Hill asked, "What is wrong?" In the Virgin Islands, as in many places, the answer to this question usually takes the form of either blame or blame avoidance, depending on whose ox is being gored at any particular moment.
Because there is so much wrong in the territory's public sector, there is a litany of blame and blame-shifting responses that have been repeated so often and for so long that everyone's senses have been numbed. Worst of all, most people no longer believe in commitments that are made or that, whatever the problem, something will be done on even a remotely timely basis.
At some level, we all know what doesn't work and "what is wrong," although the explanations get put into a kind of shorthand: "bureaucracy," "incompetence," "lack of funding" that really doesn't tell us much. What we don't spend a lot of time thinking about is what does really work. What makes places and organizations run well? What are the qualities that separate successful governments, businesses and organizations from those that are not successful?
Several months ago, the Harvard Business Review published an extraordinary article titled "What Really Works." The authors analyzed 160 companies to try to identify the qualities and practices that lead to success. They found a consistent pattern in those organizations that succeeded. They all shared four qualities: a clear and effective strategy; a focus on executing that strategy (that is, effective operations); solid systems and work processes; and a "culture" that supported success. Everything else, including brains and talent, was secondary.
Although the study's focus was on private companies, its lessons are just as applicable to government and not-for-profit organizations. Using this framework could greatly benefit the Virgin Islands.
First, in an environment that is highly political and focused on blame, using these four "hooks" allows us to be critical without engaging in blame. Second, it forces us to think longer term, rather than being completely reactive or focusing only on getting through the next month, the next payroll period or just this week. Finally, the approach pushes people to define an achievable vision.
A vision isn't vague or "soft." It is a description of what we want the place, the organization, the government or the business environment to look like in five years, and then figuring out how we get from here to there. How should the place look different in the future? What is most important to us?
Defining such a vision using the four criteria for success would be a great agenda for a community-wide conference of government, business and academic leaders on the future of the Virgin Islands. Here is an outsider's "first cut" at an assessment of the state of the territory across these four dimensions. In each instance, the description is presented to establish a starting point for thinking about a better future.
Strategy: At present, the territory does not appear to have an overall strategy. Individual businesses may have one, but there does not seem to be a clear set of goals and approaches to achieving them for the Virgin Islands as a whole. At the most fundamental level, the government and much of the private sector, particularly the tourist industry, are operating at cross-purposes and rarely speak with a single voice. This problem must be ranked somewhere between serious and disastrous for a small group of islands in a highly competitive region that is in economic decline.
Let's ask the question: What do the leaders and the people of the Virgin Islands want the territory to look like in 10 years in the following areas:
The economy, with a particular focus on tourism: What kind of tourism do we want? How do we distinguish the Virgin Islands in a positive sense from other tourist destinations, places to live, places to set up a business? How do we improve customer service? What other business sectors should we emphasize? Realistically, what will these sectors need to be successful in the future? How do we improve the relationship between government and the business community?
The government: How can a government that represents only a part of the community regain its credibility and legitimacy across all groups? How should the government be structured to best serve the legitimate interests of all three islands? Within a framework of finite resources, what roles must the government play more effectively in the future? What can government do to improve public safety, environmental protection, health and mental health services, and education? How can the government achieve "transparency" and eliminate the perceptions of "insiderism" and "cronyism"? Ideally, what should the government look like in five years? Ten years?
The society: How do we build trust across racial and income groups and among the three islands? How do we reduce the impacts of poverty, especially on children and youth? How can crime be reduced and a sense of security be restored? What services are most important to building a decent society for all of the territorys citizens, young and old, rich and poor, and across all racial and ethnic groups?
Execution/implementation: As almost all Virgin Islanders know, this is a major problem area. The connection between decisions and actions is often non-existent. The quality of services is inconsistent and often poor. Decision-making authority is concentrated at the top, so that people who understand the problem and who are on the front line are typically passive and powerless. There is so much waste and unproductive effort and the opportunities for improvement are so vast that this area should represent "low-hanging fruit" to anyone interested in real change.
Systems/structures/work processes: These are the structures and tools that make delivery of services at a high level possible. All one has to do is read the Source on any given day to realize that the Virgin Islands lacks basic systems and structures, whether for financial management, education, or basic environmental protections. An area in which progress has been made in recent years is health care.
The systems and processes that do exist are too politicized. People don't know what to expect and don't trust them. There is too much complexity for what are essentially simple procedures. There is inadequate investment in training, communication and knowledge sharing. For example, how often do interdepartmental teams develop policies and work processes for functions that cut across their departments? And, there is an extraordinary lack of accountability for failure to achieve results. More "low-hanging fruit."
Culture: In the Harvard Business Review study, the cultures that led to success were those in which there were high expectations for performance. Everyone actually tried to do his or her best. People thought about ways in which to make things better. They focused on the customers and customer needs. They did not view their work as a place they had to go to get a paycheck. Rather than recite a now familiar litany of Virgin Islands deficiencies in these areas, it is worth simply stating that there are organizations that have created and nurtured successful cultures. It can be done. It starts with an acceptance of reality and with facing certain unpleasant truths as problems to be solved rather than blame to be allocated or shifted.
In all four areas that determine success, there is a focus on "nuts and bolts" responses. There is no room for either the grandiosity or the pessimism that one often finds in Virgin Islands discussions about the future or about "what is wrong." The message in this framework is: "Here is what really works. Th
ere are no great secrets. Take it and run with it if you want to change and improve."
Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He was one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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