Guest blog written by Cindy McCormick
This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.
Before this course, as an engineer that’s spent most of my career in the private sector, and four years working in municipal government, I never really thought much about ‘public policy’ and wasn’t even sure what it meant. My new boss of six months thought it would be a good course for me to take so I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. I had recently started a Vision Zero plan and the idea of implementing what we were learning in a real project sounded interesting, as my old habits generally replace any new learning if it’s not practiced immediately.
In this course I recognized immediately that I prefer the plan and control environment of policy. I want to be able execute a very specific solution, but I realized that problems are often more complex than originally thought and one specific solution is not going to solve the problem. This leads me put on blinders to the criticisms and ways to make it better because once I’ve executed the plan, I’m ready to move on. I also realized that this created a lack of ownership for developing a comprehensive solution for myself and others as the specific solution was often dictated by others.
The timing was perfect for implementing what we were learning in the course to the City of Lancaster Vision Zero initiative to reduce the number of fatal and serious injury crashes to zero by the year 2030. We were scheduled to adopt the plan by December, which coincided with the course schedule. I was fortunate that Vision Zero is not a new concept and there is an abundance of resources available to draw upon. I also had an experienced consultant on board to help guide the process. The consultant was well into the plan by the time the course began. While the consultant dived into the data and worked on an overall City plan, I started to identify how to build my network and build teams to set up for the implementation after adoption of the plan.
As the engineer, I wanted to focus on the design side of the issue, so I convened a crash evaluation team. My first stumbling block was getting PennDOT to the table, as they own the major routes through the city that are on the high injury network identified by the consultant. The time requested (one meeting every two weeks) was too much for them to commit to one municipality. While they did not join our crash evaluation team, I made sure we presented the draft plan to various PennDOT divisions and had a detailed dialogue about what they will and will not allow on their roadways as well as systemwide traffic calming improvements we felt they could implement with their paving projects such as high visibility crosswalks and parking lane lines. They were receptive to these requests and complimented the City for undertaking this initiative. We did learn that they are only interested in allowing the implementation of “proven” countermeasures or improvements on their roadways. This may prove difficult to try new ideas so it will be important to report back to them on small wins (on local roadways) as we move through the implementation, which in turn will hopefully result in more authorization from them.
The crash evaluation worked on a fishbone diagram to identify the root causes of the serious injury and fatal crashes. I tried to instill a sense of a safe space and openness within the group but I realize now that I didn’t spend enough time telling the story and getting buy-in and ownership from them. I felt like I spent too much time directing and trying to assign tasks rather than them volunteering to move any specific task forward. While this group is still meeting, I also question if some members should be switched out to bring more ideas and forward movement to the task at hand. This is a work in progress.
As we continued to meet, I did find myself becoming burned out with the course and the additional pressures of my job and always feeling behind. I appreciated the break given during the course and the emphasis on taking time for yourself. Our challenges are often like a workout, just when you want to give up is when it’s important to fight through, because that’s where you truly see results. For me, I just need to do it at a pace that can be sustained for the long term and to not become defeated by small set backs. Resiliency is the key to a successful initiative.
The concepts of leadership were also very timely for me as my department was recently reorganized and I was in the process of developing a vision. The idea of taking risks on behalf of things I can about and engaging other to take the risks with me came to forefront as I worked on developing vision for our department. The participation of my staff was important in developing that vision in order to create a sense of ownership and them wanting to take the risk with me. While I still have work to do on this front, I realize this is integral to building my staff and allowing them to grow.
The main thing that I have learned with this course is to take time to be thoughtful about the various stages of any project. I’m wanting to complete tasks, and sometimes I don’t feel like I have the luxury to take time to plan out processes, to ask five ‘whys’, to try out ideas that may fail, creating safe spaces for team members, or developing a story that I am passionate about and want to tell. But I now realize these elements, and the many other concepts we learned, are imperative in executing a successful policy. I haven’t mastered any of them yet, but now when I’m headed in the wrong direction, I catch myself and say, “I need to try another way”.
The Vision Zero Plan was adopted by City Council on November 24, 2020 and I am working on adding teams to help implement the plan. I know there will be stumbles along the way but with the IPP course, I am now equipped to implement the plan. Check out the link below for updates on our progress.