Think ahead, plan ahead, get ahead, stay ahead

Earlier this week, I was listening to a live stream of my kids’ school’s board trying to decide on their plans for the school year. Because it’s a charter school, it’s a school district of one with its own board, but because it’s also a public school, it must follow state mandates just like traditional public schools. 

Our principal is one of the most gifted administrators I’ve ever met, in education or otherwise. What makes her great is partly her sincere dedication to her mission and to the kids and families she serves, but that can only take you so far. In order to be successful, you have to anticipate and plan for the second, third, and fourth order consequences of any decision you make, effectively running a simulation in your own head and then adjusting variables and doing it again. She does this, and as a result, she either anticipates problems so she has time to deal with them, or heads them off altogether.

The bane of planners everywhere is when their plans depend on someone else also planning ahead, or at least acting rationally and predictably. Schools and businesses all over the state are dealing with that right now, of course. The key, as a great executive officer I once served with in the Navy always reminded his crew, was to build space for the unknown into the schedule, so this disaster or that crisis doesn’t cascade through everything you’re otherwise trying to accomplish. 

School administrators must come up with three plans – one, a return to school full time, two, a part time hybrid system where kids come to school two or three days a week, or three, a return to online-only education. No one likes the third, and no person who can rationally balance various cost-benefits and risks is much a fan of the second. But while no one in the board meeting said it, it’s well understood at this point that the governor is not guided by such a holistic problem solving approach,and therefore  everyone is planning on still being in “phase two” with a hybrid model. 

In the traditional Washoe County School District, Superintendent McNeil has simply announced that elementary kids are going back full time, with a plan awfully thin on details on how it comports with state mandates. I think the district is going forward on a forgiveness-is-better-than-permission theory, which I actually salute the hell out of. I just hope that other private and charter schools are given similar leeway and flexibility in executing their own plans for a return to classes, which are sorely needed and science approved.

But even WCSD has to worry about state budgets and other surprise directives from the government, which is now totally vapor locked in Carson City.

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I wish that Gov. Sisolak or any member of the majority party leadership in Carson City went to school under my kids’ principal, or served on the USS Paul F. Foster with Lieutenant Commander Shinego. Once you learn to think ahead, it’s confusing and frustrating when you see people who aren’t doing it. 

In retrospect, the “15 days to slow the spread” was always silly, especially after learning how prevalent the virus was even in February. Subsequent information has made clear the uselessness of harsh shutdowns – the unfairly maligned Swedish model now looks incredibly forward thinking, for example. But at the time, everyone was doing it, and it seemed sensible enough. When Sisolak shut down the state initially, that very minute was the time to start thinking, “and THEN what, and what do we do about THAT?”  

While we couldn’t know if the shutdown was wise at the time, what was known from day one was that there would be massive socio-economic fallout from the shutdown, and that the impacts would grow exponentially every single day things were shut down. Neither people out of work nor closed businesses can pay taxes, and instead both received government aid of one kind or another (or at least were supposed to), a budget double whammy. Disrupted supply chains in a complex, globally interdependent economy have all sorts of chaotic, unexpected consequences. Part of the reason we’re worried about hospital capacity now is that “elective” medical procedures (which often are still quite necessary) were put off for months and now need to be completed. If you’re charged with a crime in Washoe County, the government can’t (or won’t, more accurately) try you in a court of law until “later” – and all those cases are stacking up.

The only way to ameliorate those types of consequences was to think about them, plan for them, and adjust your virus mitigation strategy to account for them. Most importantly, the governor should have ensured any shutdown was as limited as possible, and as targeted as possible to specific businesses or geographic areas where the most good could be done (protecting nursing homes, for example, where so many of the deaths are coming from). 

Instead, the governor keeps painting with too broad a brush, and reacting instead of being proactive. He’s dealing with problems only after they’re knocking on his door, instead of anticipating and getting ahead of them. He has articulated no endgame or definition of success or victory. Even if COVID magically disappeared tomorrow, his reactionary method of governing will hobble our recovery as a state for decades to come.

(It did not have to be this way. As a contrast, look at South Dakota (a state which also relies heavily on travel and tourism for its economic health), which was one of the few states to resist issuing strict lockdown orders and has now ended its fiscal year with a budget surplus and far better numbers than us on the disease front. Agree with her or not, Governor Kristi Noem knows how to think ahead and plan ahead, and it has made all the difference for her people.)   

The current mess of the Legislature’s special session is the fruit of this fecklessness. From its inception – waiting until the last minute to reveal the specific agenda or issue his proclamation – it looked like more lurching around instead of executing a well-considered plan that had been in the works for months (which is what it should have been). And while it is appropriate for the Legislature to debate and disagree with any governor, what is also strange is that it does not seem the governor has actually been working with (or even really communicating with) the legislators in a meaningful way prior to the session. 

This is as much the fault of legislative leadership as the governor. Everyone knew what was coming. Why aren’t they pressuring the governor to set them up for success? Why in the hell does a secret surprise tax-hiking bill get introduced at the last minute before anyone had a chance to vet it, and then debated in the middle of the night?  Regardless of the merits of any tax, that is a ridiculous, unprofessional, and it turns out totally ineffective way to handle the people’s business.

And beyond that tax bill, where has the planning been?  It’s been four months – plenty of time to work ahead of time and sell specific proposals to legislators (on both sides of the aisle by the way), and to take their concerns and priorities into account. If the governor wanted to let lawmakers debate things more organically, he should have called the special session in April (while the problems were still smaller), and then called another one every month after that. And he should have been working with (and frankly warning) the many stakeholders about these hard choices, instead of hiding in his office with the door locked.

The idea of holding a second special session to address things like criminal justice reform right now is ludicrous. You don’t add more to your plate when you can’t handle what’s already there.

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COVID is hard. Although the apocalyptic initial predictions were wrong, it is nevertheless a very serious disease we still know too little about, that kills people in a terrible way. Government officials, themselves imperfect people often more temperamentally suited to winning elections than governing, must make decisions with imperfect information, and they will never make everyone happy as they do. I remain firm in my belief that the governor and most of our lawmakers in both parties are sincere in their desires to get us back on track economically, socially, and health-wise, even when they disagree on how to get there. (Of course, I also remain firm in my belief that this crisis and its response is yet more proof as to why we shouldn’t expect the government to solve all of our problems for us, even in the best of times.)

But the failure to plan ahead – or even to think ahead – is inexcusable. It’s unacceptable from the governor in particular (unlike legislators, this is his full time job). 

In a public health crisis, the credibility of the government is crucial. Had Mr. Sisolak properly planned and communicated, the special session would have lasted a day or two, and Nevadans could have had the confidence of knowing a firm hand was on the helm. Instead, that credibility continues to hemorrhage as the special session drags on and ultimately ends (as it will) with some slapped together budget band-aides which will without a doubt spark their own cascades of unintended and unanticipated negative consequences. 

Our government needs to get its act together, regroup, and refocus. We need more, earlier, and more specific communication with both the public and with (and from) lawmakers. We need to think ahead and plan ahead, so we can get ahead and stay ahead. I don’t expect miracles, but I do expect at least as much competence as we expect from an elementary school principal.

The COVID crisis is already spawning other crises, and will continue to do so as long as Gov. Sisolak and our legislative leadership fail to understand and follow these basic principles of good leadership and management. 

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at orrin@orrinjohnson.com.