Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Statecraft- on A Culture of Low Expectations

It's difficult to think of a more damning characterization of an organization that to deem it to be to be one that has a systemic culture of low expectations. By any account, it spells the word "failure" and it would weigh very heavily on anyone saddled with the responsibility for this dire outcome.

The Hamiltonian feels for City Manager Chris Murray who, bureaucratically is accountable to the directing minds of this city- city council. However, we feel particularly empathetic to all those employees of the city (and we would like to think it is the vast majority) who go to work each day, do their jobs with pride and to the best of their ability, often times putting in long hours and going beyond reasonable expectations of their work. Those employees should not be painted by the same brush and they serve as a testament for the need for change; beyond the obvious need for change demanded by the public interest and the public purse.

The magnifying glass should not only fall on City Manager Chris Murray and some of his managers, but on City Council as the directing minds of this city. Chris serves at the pleasure of council, who serves at the pleasure of the electorate. That chain of command requires that city council serve as a vanguard on behalf of the public and guard the public interest and trust.

While Clr. Merulla may have been correct in his recent observations that public works' productivity has increased as a result of the investigations and actions related to the recent scandal of alleged time theft and the like, that perspective should not be the prevailing one. City Council should have made demands on the bureaucracy long ago and they would have been absolutely correct to have done so. 

And while fighting off the spirit of "I told you so" banter, initial signs of the criticality of the issue of performance was raised by The Hamiltonian in a series of articles pertaining to the then, dire state of performance contracts/agreements. You may want to read these articles by clicking here. 

As far as we know, to date, the city has no way of correlating whether those on the sunshine list (employees making over $100,000.00 per year), have a performance agreement/contract in place, and further, whether the expectations expressed in such instruments are being met. 

On a positive note, we understand that the performance agreement/contract instruments have been revised and improved and progress has been made with respect to the amount of staff who have one in place. The process of measuring against such agreements has to be done with the necessary sensitivity so as to resist  measuring for the sake of measuring, and rather, invoking a system that meaningfully and supportively takes stock of performance and allows it to improve with the necessary coaching and training.  Such a system would also be useful where progressive discipline is required and would help to withstand any challenges at arbitration or before other judicial or quasi judicial bodies. 

Public reporting, in the form of a report card that can be accessed online by anyone, with understood measures by department and progress against those measures, would be the ultimate expression of accountability to the public.

Back to city council- are they demanding these measures? Are they asking about the degree of performance contracts that are in place and completed meaningfully? Are they asking why those on the sunshine list may or may not have performance contracts/agreements? Let's hope they are.

In terms of City Manager Chris Murray and his journey to change the culture, unless he moves quickly to hold the organization to account, he would have truly failed the very people who excel in their work, and left those who are permitted to waste public funds, to do so.

We wish Chris well and warn him that culture has strategy for breakfast daily. 

The Hamiltonian


  1. AnonymousMay 12, 2015

    Eloquently and tastefully said

  2. This was certainly an informative read over coffee this morning. I have no doubt that there are a great majority of exellent public servants working for the City of Hamilton - as I have had the pleasure of dealing with many of them. I also, have no doubt that there is a systematic culture that needs shaking and changing. Perhaps the City Manager is part of that culure. I don't know, but I need to throw it out there given everything that is happening under him. I do feel very bad for the many good men and women that go to work each day trying to do a good job and make a living. It's pretty bad when there are reports after reports that alude to the corruption, poisoned work environment and that over 60% of the city's employees claim that they have to jepordize their ethics to keep their jobs. What the hell! This report came out a few years ago and nothing was done about it. Mayor Bratina was quoted as saying the work enviornment at City Hall is toxic! I personally believe that Council needs to take some drastic measures by replacing the City Manager with an expierenced and results proven City Manager from the outside to make the changes this organization desperately needs. At the very least, give the City Manager a deadline to make the necesary changes and then hold him accountable. I have never seen an organization that has been so lax when it comes to accountability. Don't these people have reviews each year? You would think they do if they are charged with so much responsibility and we are paying them. Does anyone know if they are?


  3. AnonymousMay 12, 2015

    Teresa et El you should submit this to the spec for publication. This is a well written and thought out perspective and it should be widely shared I have forwarded it to a few people already

  4. AnonymousMay 12, 2015

    My friend Mark Chamberlain puts it as "culture trumps strategy daily!"

  5. SerendipityMay 12, 2015

    Teresa, I don't know how long it took you, and others?, at the Hamiltonian to think, plan and write this piece, but, wow! Earl Basse should have hired you to do his job.

    There's no doubt in my mind, I believe Teresa DiFalco should be appointed Hamilton's new Ombudswoman.
    Mr. Murray, do us all a huge favour and hire Teresa tout suite!

    1. Wow is the best way to describe it. I am impressed with how much punch can be packed in one article. Nicely done and much needed.

  6. AnonymousMay 12, 2015

    I agree with all the sentiments above and I will not affix my name here, because it would cause me problems at my job. I love that you recognized those who work hard and there are many. I cant describe what it is like working in this environment but this writing made me feel better. Thank-you. I have never written anything here but I was inspired by this. Each time I get en email from you, the ones that say In the Hamiltonian, they are always worth reading. Thanks for not wasting my time with fluff and keep doing what you are doing. I hope the higher ups are listening. Unless something happens quick we will all be working on our CVs.

  7. AnonymousMay 13, 2015

    "Public reporting, in the form of a report card that can be accessed online by anyone, with understood measures by department and progress against those measures, would be the ultimate expression of accountability to the public"

    Love that.

  8. AnonymousMay 13, 2015

    Merulla may be right but it is twisted logic. If we have to spend 1 million each time we want to see people acvtually do what theya re paid to do, we'd go broke. It makes way more sense to do exactly what these articles are suggesting- performance contracts and reporting to the public IMHO

  9. jim grahamMay 13, 2015

    I find it remarkable how this appears to have bounced off Merulla and landed squarely at Murray's feet. Shouldn't the department chair assume rightful responsibility for the performance of his employees? And how long has Sam been chair of Public Works? Coincidence? As a role model for the attitudes, values, practices, goals, thinking and behavior of his staff, Sam has fostered the culture which currently exists. When a fixed focused approach is clearly required to "turn around the ship" he remains anything but fixed or focused, popping out of the bushes almost every day with a new motion or initiative (cat;s gas,traffic Lloyd....some actually worthy!)
    So I agree Murray is our only hope of providing the sort of leadership necessary to bring the department into an acceptable level of performance. Doing so with Sam in place may prove impossible.Watching Sam take credit for the transformation may prove more than I can bear.
    Good luck Chris.Get lost Sam

  10. AnonymousMay 13, 2015

    I don't think the message here is being understood. Council is where the buck stops. Murray reports to them. He is accountable to them. If council were doing their job, this would not have happened. If a CEO had so many failings under his/her belt in the private sector, they'd have been fired long ago. Maybe it is this council the needs to be fired.

  11. Term Limits NowMay 15, 2015

    I don't think this city council understands what it means to be a culture of performance. And I don't know why we re-elect them. Or some of us do. I am looking at Green and Aiden Johnson to start being rebels in the face of this and demand change. I hope they did not get co-opted into the existing culture.

    Term Limits Now

    By the way, your commentary was mention on the O Show. Good that it is getting out.

  12. AnonymousMay 15, 2015

    Time to flush out the Public Works Committee and replace the dead wood with new blood.

  13. AnonymousMay 19, 2015

    There is a culture of contentment at City Hall. Contentment with mediocrity. There is much dead wood at City Hall. Neither Murray or anyone else has the stomach to do any spring pruning. An orchard that is not pruned will stop producing prunes.


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