Monthly Archives: December 2011

Certified Public Manager Graduation Speech: Craig Weinaug

Comments Delivered By Craig Weinaug, Douglas County Administrator
On November 18, 2011

Craig Weinaug addresses CPM 2011 graduates

Craig Weinaug addresses CPM 2011 graduates

As we approach another election cycle, I feel a mixture of excitement and dread as our attention is drawn again toward discussion of public issues. It certainly seems to me that at the state and national levels, some candidates base their entire campaigns on a baseless claim. They tell voters that government is responsible for virtually everything bad going on in the world today. Candidates for elected offices at every level compete to be perceived as the candidate who would eliminate the biggest chunks of this thing we call government.

Even in TV sitcoms and in almost all popular culture, any character part of a mayor, state legislator, or any other public job is almost always portrayed as incompetent, lazy, and/or just plain comically stupid.

Government is rarely presented in public debates or in popular culture as a positive force.

I once had a conversation with a young lady who was working toward her M.P.A. degree. She had interviewed the governor of the state where she went to undergraduate school. When he found out that she was pursuing a career in public service, he could not understand why a topflight student would seek a career in the public sector as her first choice when she could make so much more money in the private sector.

I am here to make an important point that seems to have been lost in public discourse: Government is the means that we have to collectively pay for and provide those services that we collectively need.

Government is not a boogeyman. Government is roads and bridges. Government is schools and libraries. Government is the military keeping us safe around the world, and government is public servants keeping our water and air safe at home.

The vast majority of government workers are public servants who have chosen a career in public service because they want to make better life for all of us.

Government includes our teachers who spend every day of their professional lives giving our children the opportunity to be all that they can be, regardless of the level of success of their parents.

It includes occupational rehab specialists that work with our neighbors with disabilities so they can live with dignity and be productive citizens regardless of the disabilities that they may have.

It includes law enforcement officers and fire fighters that are prepared on a moment’s notice to risk their lives so the rest of us can be safe.

It includes road engineers that devote an entire career in the continuing effort to make our roads as safe as possible and minimize the loss of life.

It includes public health officials who work to protect us all from the outbreak of diseases that would regularly threaten our communities, if it were not for their perseverance.

It includes the social workers at SRS who work to ensure that there is a safety net for the children of our citizens who have lost their jobs.

It includes the psychologists at our community mental health centers who work to meet the critical needs of our neighbors with mental health disorders. In many cases, the services of our mental health centers make the difference between a productive life and a life spent in and out of jail or worse.

It includes building inspectors who try to assure that our businesses and homes are safe and secure for us to live and work in. Government includes the emergency communication specialists that can quickly direct virtually any type of emergency personnel to meet a citizen’s need, and when needed, they can even give instructions to someone on the scene to clear the air path of a suffocating citizen.

It includes the garbage collector who picks up your trash and safely disposes of it in a sanitary landfill, and the public works employee that makes sure that when you flush your toilet that your human waste flows away from your house safely and does not flow back into our lakes and rivers until that sewage is clean and harmless.

It includes court officials who spend their entire careers balancing our constitutional safeguards against the need to incarcerate those who are a threat to our safety.

Government includes economic development specialists who work hard to make sure that our state retains and attracts jobs for all of us, including our children.

It includes the army enlistee who risks her life on the other side of the globe to keep us safe.

Government includes every member of this graduating class.

We are engaged in a great debate in this country and in this state about how much government we can “afford,” and it is an important debate. There are no easy answers.

There are always going to be people who want to distort the debate by characterizing what we do as somehow inferior or unnecessary or inefficient. Don’t let those charges go unanswered. Do your job well, do it with pride, and stand up for yourself and your colleagues.

We strive to find the balance between the services that we provide as public servants, the investments our communities need to make for the future, and the taxes it takes to support that vision without passing the bill on to the next generation.

And at every level of government, in every department or division or agency there are dedicated and determined public employees who are working every day to help our elected officials to strike the best and most appropriate balance.

Government is what we do. It is the work that you have dedicated your careers to and by earning this degree I know you are committed to doing it well.

Public service is a high calling. It is essential to who we are as Kansans and as Americans. Let’s perform that service with pride.

The Swiss Cheese Syndrome

The following is reposted from the blog The Inspired Teacher. She offers some insights about the challenges of listening and speaking–even when we mean well.

I went to a conference recently. The first speaker was from the state department of education and I was ready to listen; in fact, I did listen, but I could not follow her remarks. Why? I simply could not understand what she was saying.

In her first sentence, she used two unfamiliar acronyms. While I paused to decode the first one, I missed several words which followed. The second acronym was completely new to me, so when she said it, I could not understand it all. Thus, in spite of a wide vocabulary, I could not grasp the meaning of her sentence.

The same problem continued throughout her remarks. I spent more time wondering if I had decoded the acronyms than I did absorbing her advice and information. As you can imagine, I was annoyed and frustrated. But suddenly I saw it as a learning experience: I was feeling the same sensations that students feel when they don’t understand the vocabulary or references that I use in the classroom.

In a related incident, I was the speaker at a staff meeting. After I presented an involved list of steps for meeting the goals in the school improvement plan, one of the teachers said, “I would really appreciate a list, so I could keep track of all these things.”

“She already told us we would get one!” said one of his colleagues impatiently, at the very moment that I held up the checklists I was ready to hand out. I paused to talk about his knowledge gap.

“You know, Justin’s comment brings up a common issue,” I said. “He has been here, and he looked pretty attentive, but he still missed, or didn’t remember, that detail. Everyone misses things. It’s human to miss things. Whenever our attention wanders for just a second, we lose a detail or an idea. It’s important to remember that when we talk to the young people in our classes. They will have the same gaps and not because of bad intentions.”

In both cases it was as if the listener was looking at a scene through a window with stickers all over it. He/she missed meaning because parts of the whole picture were obscured by blockages, whether of understanding or attention.

Add these two issues together and you get what I call the Swiss Cheese Syndrome.

Listeners are highly likely to have holes—big and small—in their comprehension of our words, just as Swiss cheese is normally full of holes. We are wise to expect gaps and do what we can to fix them, rather than let the situation make us angry or discouraged.

What can we do?

First, be aware. We have to stop assuming that if we know a given word ourselves, then everyone knows it. We can plan in advance to include simple words in explanations and descriptions. Generally, the more syllables the word has, the more likely for it to be unknown to someone. In addition, content vocabulary and scientific words must be explicitly taught, and then reviewed and used–up to a dozen times for full comprehension by all students.

Second, check constantly. Ask for a student to restate a point. Be sure to call on those average learners, not just those whose hands are usually waving. It is too easy to assume that if one person in the class knows something, then the whole class knows it. Direct your learners to summarize for an “elbow partner.”
Have each student write a summary as a “ticket out the door.” The methods are numerous once we recognize the importance of using them.

Most of all, remember that when you feel like moaning “but I TOLD them that,” it is pretty likely that some of the students are thinking, “I never heard her say THAT.” Just take a deep breath, know that it is the Swiss Cheese Syndrome in action, and try again.