Friday, August 14, 2009

UI VPs and ICCSD Consultants

July 14, 2009, 8:30 a.m.

Concerns About Consultants and Vice Presidents
(brought to you by*)

UI vice presidents and ICCSD school district consultants are back in the news.

Wikipedia tells us that "A consultant, from the Latin 'consultare,' means 'to discuss' from which we also derive words such as consul and counsel . . .."

Put "consultants" into Google and you get 88 million hits.

Clearly, there's a lot of discussion going on. Why it's going on and whether it's worth the time and money is what interests me.

Rob Daniel's piece in the Press-Citizen yesterday, informing me that "The Iowa City School District could hire a consultant to help sort out what needs to be done to eventually build a third high school," is what got me thinking about consultants once again. Rob Daniel, "District may hire consultant; Would help smooth planning process for new high school," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 13, 2009, p. A3.

Similar issues (for reasons I'll discuss shortly) are raised by this morning's story by Brian Morelli, "UI goes forward with VP search; Hope to fill senior communications position by Nov.," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 14, 2009, p. A3.

It turns out that, notwithstanding the initial objections to the UI expenditure in these economic times, we're going ahead with the creation of yet another Vice Presidential position: "Vice President for Strategic Communication." UI's vice presidents are paid a minimum of $214,000. Thus, this new position -- with benefits, office and staff -- means we're talking well in excess of $300,000 a year (an extra $10 annually from each of 30,000 students).

So why are we doing this now, while cuts are being made throughout the University and UI spokesman Tom Moore acknowledges that "The economic climate requires thoughtful decision-making"? Because, apparently, it was "through that [thoughtful decision-making] process [that] it was determined we should move forward with creating this position."

I guess that explanation should probably be enough to silence all doubters.

After all, as Moore continued, "The new position is essential to . . . assuring that we communicate effectively with all our constituents."

Obviously, I don't have the perspective of the UI president's office, I'm no expert, and I certainly haven't memorized every University of Iowa publication and media effort. But I track every local and national story in the media about the University and almost always have been well impressed with the quality of the University News Service personnel and output, and the range of UI publications: the main UI Web page, the News Digest, the @Iowa news items, the Alumni Magazine and Spectator, the faculty fyi, there's some publication for parents I recall -- and there are no doubt many more, such as our law school's "Iowa Advocate" and four law reviews. When someone at the University stumbles and falls the media is going to notice and report the fact. Not much public relations can do about that. In fact, do too much and we are worse off and charged with "spin," or do too little and we're charged with "stonewalling." That goes with the territory. But day in and day out I'll compare our public relations, quality of News Service releases, and the media treatment we receive as a result, with that of any of our sister institutions. So I don't know exactly what this "communicate effectively with all our constituents" -- obviously suggesting we're not doing it now -- is all about.

Hold that thought. I'll be back to the vice president in a minute.

Before I continue, let me make a couple of things clear. It is not the purpose of this blog entry to criticize either the University or the school district. That's because (a) the points I want to make have to do with administrators' use of consultants, and the equivalent of vice presidents, in general, and (b) because I don't have enough of the background facts involved in these two decisions to come to definitive conclusions about their justification and wisdom. (However, even if I don't have confidence in the answers I do have confidence in the questions and what are not intended to be anything more than superficial suspicions.)

Now let's examine Superintendent Lane Plugge's explanation of the reasons for his consultant.

Daniel reports the consultant is "to discuss the process of getting a new high school built in the North Liberty area. He [Plugge] said the consultant was necessary to help analyze the financial and enrollment data the district already has and use that data to possibly eventually redraw boundaries district wide." He then quotes Plugge, "What I'm looking to get from that consultant is the public engagement in the process."

To summarize, the consultant (a) will "discuss the process" of building new schools, (b) "analyze financial and enrollment data" already possessed, (c) "possibly redraw boundaries," and (d) provide "public engagement."

We'll come back to that explanation as well. But first, just what is it consultants and vice presidents do?

No institution -- corporation, university, government agency -- can have all the specialized expertise it needs in its permanent employees. It makes financial sense, when addressing challenges that could not have been predicted, or that come up extremely rarely, to bring in an outsider -- an architect, trial lawyer, doctor, or specialist in toxic waste disposal. Moreover, even with staff expertise, decisions of sufficient seriousness, when there is disagreement within the profession as to the best course of action, may significantly benefit from "a second opinion."

But all too often the functions of consultants and "vice presidents" (which I'm using in the general sense of anyone holding a title and responsibility for some of a CEO's functions) are far less savory.

A CEO (a title I'll use to include "president," "commissioner," "superintendent," "executive director," or "chair") for a variety of possible reasons may want a "vice president" for "decision deniability," a potential scapegoat, either in general, or with regard to a specific sub-set of his or her responsibilities. Or perhaps he or she is insecure about their ability to do a portion of their job, a job for which they were hired on the assumption they had that expertise. Or perhaps they lack confidence in the ability of those actually doing a given task and, rather than go through the unpleasantness of firing them, prefer to hire another administrative layer of oversight. (Again, I have no factual basis to believe any of this applies to UI VPs.)

A consultant may be hired for similar reasons. They may be brought in, and instructed, to support a decision of the CEO (already made in fact; while the appearance is that the consultant is proposing something not formerly considered) that needs political shoring up. They may be hired to perform tasks well within the job descriptions of permanent employees -- tasks those employees are incompetent, or otherwise simply not up, to performing.

At best, an outside consultant will have to be educated from the knowledge base possessed by the permanent employees. At worst s/he will bring to the institution little more than the general, basic textbook knowledge from their profession that many of the employees could quickly read on their own.

During my time on the school board we recognized the urgency of addressing (creating, actually) the governance system (the role and function of the board; the members relations with each other; the board's relationship to the superintendent, and other administrators; the functions of the superintendent and his/her evaluation; management information reporting systems). We could have hired a consultant; not just someone who had read John Carver's books, but the author -- at a cost of about $5000 a day. Instead, we chose to buy the books, read them, and relate Carver's suggestions to our own local circumstances. As a result, we were not simply accepting a consultant's suggestions with less than full understanding, we were willing to put in the hours necessary to really master the concepts and make the governance system we created our own.

Let me repeat and make clear: (a) I like Lane Plugge ("what's not to like?") and try to be as supportive as I can, and (b) I really do not know the "back story" on why he and the Board are now considering hiring a consultant. (c) I'd like to believe it's fully warranted in this instance.

It's just that superficially and simplistically it seems to me the tasks he has identified are tasks well within the job descriptions and expertise of administrators and staff the District already has in place: the ability to (a) "discuss the process" of building new schools, (b) "analyze financial and enrollment data" already possessed, (c) "possibly redraw boundaries," and (d) encourage "public engagement."

We have bright and experienced school board members. We have a number of administrators with advanced degrees from quality colleges of education. Moreover, isn't the process of building a high school very similar to the process of building an elementary school -- only for slightly bigger people? Isn't that something they've already done? Do they really need a consultant to "discuss the process"? Haven't they been thoroughly trained, aren't they already experienced, in the analysis of financial and enrollment data? Isn't the drawing of school boundaries about as bullseye central to the responsibility of a school board member (setting goals and criteria) and superintendent (application of Board's criteria to data) as any decision they'll ever make?

I've provided some suggestions on how they might improve their efforts at "public engagement" -- as have a number of other members of the public. But this is something they ought to be doing on an ongoing basis, and it's not rocket science. If they really have additional questions about how best to do it there's plenty of advice on the Internet and from local citizens. And perhaps the first principle of "public engagement" is that it is self-defeating to delegate the task to a consultant -- Board members need to involve their personal hearts, minds and bodies in the process.

Ultimately my initial questions about this use of a consultant may be satisfactorily answered. I really do hope so. It's just that those answers are not now apparent.

Similar questions remain for me about the UI's latest vice presidential addition. I am even more hopeful that my initial questions about that one will also be answered.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Although entered as a comment by "BigOldDiesel" on the Press-Citizen's UI VP story rather than here, because it expresses a reasonable and relevant point of view, different from my own, in fairness I wanted to reproduce it here:


Perhaps we've been reading different versions of the PC. It's pretty clear to me that both the ICCSD and the UI have gotten their butts kicked in the realm of public opinion lately, and that they need help.

I agree that both Mason and Plugge should have better skills in terms of PR and public engagement, but at the same time I look at all the things they have to do well as CEOs... we're already asking a lot of our executives, and if they can hire this expertise and that expertise will a) enable better decisions, and b) give them time to focus on areas more appropriate to their skills, that seems like a positive.

I don't like Plugge. I think that he's a pretty poor executive and that he's done tremendous harm to our district. Since we can't get rid of him at this point, I think getting him some help with an issue that's clearly beyond his skills isn't a bad idea.

I like Mason, and I think she and the University needs PR expertise in a huge way.
8/14/2009 11:49:39 AM

1 comment:

Gark said...


Good story. It does seem like Iowa City, the County Sheriffs Dept., ICCSD and UI should cojointly hire a VP of strategic communications (of course, really that's the only way since none, independently, should do so at this time--given their budget constraints)--but of these entities could use some good PR.

Maybe the free market could offer up a cheap alternative?