Most State, City, County and other non-federal CIOs either work for a city/county manager or for a Governor or Mayor. That official is the “boss”. We give the boss our best advice, but if they decide to do something different, then I invoke “nobody elected me”. In other words the elected official is responsible to the citizens and constituents of the city, county or state. And that elected official will receive a report card every two or four years in the form of an election. If the electorate doesn’t like the way the government is running, they’ll make their wishes known at the ballot box The Mayor or Governor was elected to make the decisions, not me.
I’ve got two reasons for writing this blog post. The first one is to try and reflect upon the stupidity of what happened in New Jersey in September. The second reason is to demonstrate how “nobody elected me” plays out in information technology.
Nobody Elected Me and New Jersey
One potential issue with the “nobody elected me” philosophy is ethics. If I recommended a course of action, and my boss decided to do something different – and his decision was – in my opinion – either unethical or illegal, what would I do? There is really only one answer to this quandary: it is my duty to resign. (I won’t address the issue of “going public”, e.g. Edward Snowden, as that is a difficult and thorny subject.)
Such instances are, thankfully, far and few between. One of my heroes is Bill Ruckelshaus, who resigned as deputy United States Attorney General. He resigned rather than carry out an order from then-President Richard Nixon to fire the special prosecutor in the Watergate affair.
As any reader probably knows, staff members of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered the closure of all-but-one traffic lane on an approach to the George Washington Bridge in early September, 2013. Governor Christie was conducting a campaign for re-election, and the closure was apparently ordered to “punish” the Mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
If you were an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and you were actually ordered to set up the traffic cones and shut down traffic for no apparent reason, what should you do? Refuse to obey the order? On what grounds?
I can’t judge the employees of the Port Authority because I don’t know what they (or their supervisors or their managers or their directors) were thinking as the traffic cones went into place and all hell broke loose for three days of traffic on that bridge. Perhaps they invoked “Nobody Elected Me” or “the boss is always right”. Perhaps they feared to question the order in order to preserve their jobs. Somebody in New Jersey government, however, should have been asking questions in September, not now in January, 2014.
Nobody Elected Me and Information Technology
“Nobody elected me” is useful when explaining otherwise inexplicable decisions to technology department employees.
For many IT employees, the “right” decision often appears to be obvious. Many such employees don’t see the nuances of political reality (especially when it comes to funding).
A few years ago, when I was CTO of the City of Seattle, I reported to Mayor Greg Nickels. Mayor Nickels and I and a third department head – responsible for the central customer service at the City – jointly decided a 311 system was needed in Seattle.
311 seems enormously logical to me. What phone number do you call if you see a fire or are having a bicycle accident (like I did) – 911, of course. But what number do you call if you want to report a backed-up sewer or you want to complain about taxi service or your cable bill? In some forward-thinking cities like Chicago and New York and Louisville that number is 311. But in Seattle you search through six pages of 8 point font in the phone book (if you even have a phone book) or search a website (if you have Internet access) to find some incomprehensible number. That sort of stupidity made no sense to me as CTO and it made no sense to Mayor Nickels.
Alas, the Seattle City Council didn’t see it quite that way, and rejected Mayor Nickels’ proposal because they didn’t see a need equal to the $9 million cost to implement.
I’m convinced the problem in Seattle was lack of Council member districts. All nine Seattle City council members are full-time members and all are elected at large. In that situation citizens don’t know which council member to call to complain about something, so they end up calling the Mayor. The Mayor and his staff “feel the pain” of citizen complaints and see the need for a 311 number and system. City council members don’t
But the electorate has spoken. Two months ago, in November, 2013, they voted to start electing council members by district. When that law takes effect in two years, council members will start feeling the pain of citizens in their district complaining and will, I think, be much more supportive of 311.
Yup, nobody elected me, but there’s always an alternative path to the goal.