Friday, 21 May 2010 00:00
Almost 20 years ago, I met a friend for lunch in the city and he introduced me to his successful brother, who worked in an upper-middle management position for IBM. I did not believe this at first because the brother wore a beard and casual clothes, and everyone knew that IBM employees had gray suits, short hair, no beards and lifetime job security. He explained that IBM, realizing too late that they were no longer in control of their own destiny, had reduced obvious expenses and were now experimenting with dumping fixed assets, selling off buildings and properties. IBM no longer wanted him to show up to an office except for meetings, and he sent his work in electronically from his house. “I have never been more productive in my life,” he told me.
I didn’t know exactly what to make of this, but I knew that this company was rethinking every aspect of what it did, and trying to adjust to a new situation.
Flash forward to the present day. Drive up County Seat Drive in Mineola at about 8 a.m. and see county employees sitting in their cars an hour or more before work, because it’s the only way they can secure parking within convenient walking distance of their office.
In the bowels of the county’s Caso building, where thousands of Nassau County employees and residents are forced to conduct business, there is an office which receives dozens of requests each day, and which is open exactly one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon.
How 1975 of us.
It’s not just the county, of course. We have other governments that have buildings filled with people processing paperwork who don’t really, actually have to be there, don’t really, actually have to do that anymore and who really, actually could be spending their time better helping residents get their business done so that everyone can get on with their lives.
Bad outreach and bad feedback lead to decisions that reinforce old attitudes. The other week, I attended a meeting called by elected officials about a neighborhood zoning matter. Sounds good so far. But the outreach for the meeting was from another era, and they ended up hearing only from people who, well-intentioned as they may be, are not representative of how thousands of their neighbors look and live in 2010.
If our institutions and leaders can’t get past these kinds of little things, it doesn’t bode well for the really humongous things that are headed our way. Last week, the Brookings Institute released an eye-opening study (“The State of Metropolitan America”) that calls this the “Decade of Reckoning” for America’s suburbs. The study confirms that the suburbs are way different from how many of us perceive them. The lines between “suburbs” and “cities” are no longer clearly delineated, and the attitudes of their residents are no longer so predictable. For example, as of the end of 2008, the poverty rate in the suburbs was rising five times faster than in our country’s cities. The old cliches and stereotypes about the suburbs are invalid.
“What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction,” said the author.
The report is being studied by political operatives of both major parties for clues about how to approach suburban voters this November.
Most critically, the report emphasizes that “old-school solutions” are not going to be effective in dealing with the challenges of these new suburbs. Do we make believe that there are walls around the suburbs, or do we rethink and adjust?
Also last week, IBM indicated that it would reduce its remaining workforce by three-quarters, rehiring some as needed as contractors without benefits for specific projects. This, too, may be the future of our public institutions if we do not break out of old-school thinking, such as a local tax system that predates Robin Hood, enforced by government structures that predate Benjamin Franklin.
Our federal government is currently sitting out the 21st century. Maybe the state, too. Long Island can’t.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org