The 90-10 Principle

I have a friend in Bangladesh who occasionally sends me e-mail messages that he finds inspirational, funny, or interesting. My general reaction to these is about the same as my response to my very conservative aunt in Ohio who routinely forwards an eclectic collection of right-wing diatribes (the President wasn’t really born in the U.S.), Christian epigrams, and somehow discordant risqué jokes. Nonetheless, I almost always read my South Asian friend’s messages; and this week I was rewarded with one I felt obligated to share.

If I’ve done my work correctly, the following link should allow readers to see a brief slide show:

Launch Slideshow

I think most of us like those things that confirm our own biases; so perhaps that’s why I found my friend’s message so valuable. I won’t attempt to embellish or explain the show because I think it speaks for itself.

We are in the process of completing the proposed budget that will be submitted to the Budget Committee in May. The proposed budget would allow us to retain all employees for the coming year, if our revenue projections are accurate and if the budget is adopted by the Committee and City Council as proposed. My view of this budget is that it is the minimally responsible fiscal plan for the City for the coming year. I believe current economic conditions dictate that the Council begin a process as soon as possible to identify what services the City can afford to deliver in the years ahead. We will not be able to maintain existing services at current levels, in my opinion, beyond the coming fiscal year (2009-10).

City budgets are extremely complex documents, both because of the amount of information they contain and the many stories they cannot convey. Our current budget is 425 pages, and I am assuming that next year’s will be of comparable length. Despite the numbers, words, graphs, and pictures, it is impossible to capture the history and reasoning behind every line item in the budget. What would seem to be an obvious waste to one person scanning the budget, might be a critical expense to someone who knows more or sees the world differently. The complexity and many interests represented in a budget document make it very difficult to change suddenly or radically.

I believe the proposed budget provides a good starting point and sufficient time for the Council to conduct a thorough review of city services. The process really begins with the City’s Strategic Plan, and the Council is committed to revisiting and revising the Plan in the months ahead.

The 90-10 Principle reminds us that we cannot control 10 percent of what happens to us in life, but we do control the other 90 percent. Our proposed budget is part of what we do control in an economy that seems to be beyond understanding.

A Dog’s Tale

 The City Council deliberations on dogs scheduled for Monday’s work session reminded me of a column I wrote about a dog when I was working in Iraq.  The story is completely true. 

Iraq is a tough place.  The people are hardened by years of deprivation and even the cars are the battered survivors of a bygone era.  Tragic stories appear in the headlines every day and danger is a way of life.  The most powerful symbol I have seen of just how tough this country can be, however, is a mongrel dog named Rocky.


Rocky is a street dog, who makes his home in some bushes near the house where I live.  He was adopted and named by one of my colleagues shortly after we moved in, although he would never let my friend touch him.  He lives off table scraps we provide, supplemented by what he can forage from the numerous garbage piles that dot the neighborhood.  He has a female companion who goes by the name Rocky’s Wife, but Rocky is essentially a loner.  While many areas of town have packs of dogs, Rocky’s street belongs to him. 


I have long believed that our greatest strengths are usually our greatest weaknesses.  Rocky illustrates the point.  When intruders enter his street after dark, they are greeted with a headlong rush of fur and teeth accompanied by furious barking.  Rocky’s technique works well against other dogs and pedestrians, but it proved to be only a minor annoyance to the military convoys that patrol the neighborhood.  About a month ago, he was hit by a Polish jeep during one of his charges; and the trial of his life began.


I was doing some computer work in my room when I heard the familiar Rocky charge followed by some horrible yelping.  I then heard two shots in quick succession, more yelping, and then a final shot.  I ran downstairs to see what had happened and was met by our security team leader who informed me that Rocky had been hit by a military vehicle.  The soldiers tried to put him out of his misery by shooting him with their AK-47’s, but they only succeeded in wounding him.  Pete, our security team leader, took charge of the situation and shot Rocky in the head with his pistol.  He asked our security guards to bury him later that night.


The following morning I sadly asked Pete if Rocky had been buried during the night, and he reported that the dog not only was not buried, but had awakened and understandably put some distance between himself and humanity.  We were both concerned he would suffer and asked a veterinarian who works for us if she would make arrangements to put him down.  She and one of our engineers spent the better part of their day off hunting Rocky, but he proved to be as smart as he is tough.  There were several Rocky sightings over the next few days, although I began to doubt these reports and assumed he had gone somewhere and died.  A few days after the shooting, I saw Rocky walking around near the Polish military compound about a quarter mile from our street and convinced myself it had to be a dog that looked like Rocky.  The dog I saw was walking normally and didn’t seem to be in any distress.  It certainly did not look like a dog that had been run over and shot three times.  Proof emerged in the succeeding days that the dog was Rocky and that he had returned to take charge of his street.


Rocky’s future was still very much in doubt due to a gaping wound in his neck.  We asked our veterinarian to take a look at him now that he was back on the street, and she concluded he could not survive.  He would not allow anyone to get close enough to treat him.  That was about three weeks ago, and Rocky is doing well.  His wound is closing and as Brendan, our always insightful security provider puts it, is “kicking butt again.”  Rocky has even learned a few lessons.  He now barks at the Polish convoys from the safety of his bushes rather than charging out at them.


I have decided that Rocky’s story is a metaphor for Iraq.  It has been badly abused and some of its greatest strengths, such as religious faith and oil resources, are in many ways its greatest weaknesses.  I received an e-mail recently from someone who was skeptical about the future of democracy in Iraq.  I have had my doubts on more than one occasion, but I doubted Rocky’s survival, too.  He has proven to me that anything can happen and happy endings are as much a part of life as sad ones.


Rocky recovering after his trials










Not a Business

Government is often justly accused of waste and inefficiency, usually after some particularly outrageous example of extravagance comes to light.  Hammers that cost the Department of Defense more than $300 seems to be the story ingrained in people’s memories.  When government waste is exposed, there is almost always a corresponding demand that government should be run like a business.


I believe it is a fundamental ignorance of the purpose of government to compare it to a business.  Government routinely borrows practices from the business world, and I would be an ingrate not to acknowledge that my profession owes its existence to corporate structure.  Business-like is not, however, the same as being a business.  My guess is that any business that had to operate under the same constraints as government would be bankrupt in very short order.


Imagine a business that could keep almost no information confidential; where elaborate processes were required before any significant decisions could be made; where the public could attend almost every meeting and say virtually anything; or where employees enjoy a right to their jobs.  The simple reason that government is not run like a business is that it is not a business.


Government is how we organize ourselves collectively to do things we cannot do individually.  In times past, kings were crowned to oversee collective effort, while today we generally rely on more democratic forms of government.  Democracy demands participation, public discussion, and the clash of opposing opinions.  These demands are in direct conflict with the idea of making money by capitalizing on competitive advantages.  Capitalism and democracy coexist, but they are not the same.


I am not aware of any businesses that arrest people or lend out literature at no cost.  It’s hard to keep customers satisfied when you are putting them in jail.  Understanding these basic differences between government and business helps explain why we sometimes pay a premium for democracy.


Sometimes narrow interest groups recognize that they can take advantage of government processes to advance their cause or make money.  Some businesses owe their success to government contracts that gave them huge advantages and profits.  The early railroads are a good example of this of phenomenon.  Government (the public) has gotten more sophisticated in its attempts to prevent blatant thievery, but people are ingenious at taking advantage of almost any system if the stakes are high enough. 


Government is not a business; and, while we strive to take the best practices from business and apply them to our work, it shouldn’t be.  We have much higher standards of transparency and public participation that no business can or should practice.  We may pay a higher price for hammers on occasion, but I believe the right to organize and govern ourselves collectively is worth it.