The ‘One Thing’

By Mark Lautman

Published 11/26/10

When you think about it, there are only a few weeks every decade when we have a clean slate to change state government. These windows of opportunity occur every four to eight years during gubernatorial transitions.

Conventional wisdom is that as the new team recruits the best and brightest to rethink, reprioritize and restructure agencies and programs, it’s the best time to introduce new ideas.

Unfortunately, transitions end up being more of a mad scramble than strategic deliberation. It’s not the team’s fault. They would love to be more deliberative and strategic. But it’s going to take a heroic effort from them just to deal with the logistics of picking a Cabinet and getting moved in the six weeks they have before the inauguration and the legislative session. It’s even worse with a lot of rookies on the team.

They can’t plan much during the campaign, even when it’s obvious early on that they’ll win. The hired guns running the campaign won’t let anyone think past Election Day. They don’t want campaign staff and supporters scheming and jockeying for coveted state appointments when they need their heads in the game of raising money and getting out the vote.

This sets up a huge management crisis that starts the morning after election night. The euphoria of victory is replaced with the sobering realization that your team has just completed a hostile takeover of an organization a thousand times bigger, and in a completely different line of business than yours. Just as your campaign organization of a hundred or so employees was beginning to figure out what it was doing, it must suddenly ramp up to take over and run an organization with a $5.2 billion budget, 60,000 employees and 2 million clients.

Say it takes two weeks, roughly till the middle of November, to select a new Cabinet. With Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays factored in, there are roughly 30 working days left before inauguration and the start of the legislative session. Thirty days to interview and hire hundreds of key department managers, get a legislative game plan together and throw a huge inauguration party. It’s made more difficult by the daily discovery of fiscal and administrative booby traps left by the outgoing administration.

It’s analogous to coming home from a whirlwind Vegas honeymoon believing you married the person of your dreams, only to discover you have 10 unruly kids and live in a broken-down mobile home with a double-digit credit score. The new team will emerge from the legislative session in late March battle-hardened and suffering from the political equivalent of PTSD. The big window for change, if it was ever open to begin with, has slammed shut. The reality is that the transition never lives up to its billing. It can’t.

On the plus side, the team suddenly has thousands of new best friends, all eager to help, each with a list of silver-bullet solutions they have been saving just for you. Former Gov. Bruce King had a brilliant way of collecting and sorting ideas from the fire hose of advice a new team is offered.

Shortly after election to his last term, he asked me, “If I can get the Legislature to go along with me on ‘One Thing’ that would help you create the most economic-base jobs in your community over the next four years, what would it be?”

Of course, I always had a list. But when I launched into it, he smiled, put his index finger in the air and said, “Just need one. Call me when you get it down to one.”

It was a cruel thing to do to someone like me. It took me weeks to get it down to one. Eventually, though, I did. He did that to a lot of us. Not only was it a sneaky way to get us all thinking, sorting and prioritizing, it achieved a kind of involuntary consensus. Best of all, we didn’t have to go to a bunch of town halls and forums.

When deciding which parts of the state’s economic development apparatus to cut or keep, and what new strategies to try, you might ask your legions of new best-friends-forever for the “One Thing” they would cut, the “One Thing” they would keep and the “One New Thing” you should try.

I know, that’s three “One Things.” I can’t help it.