Moving on up… to Capitol hill

For the past three years I’ve worked at the Metropolitan Council. This is a regional (seven county) governmental organization that manages the area’s public transit, wastewater treatment, housing development, park planning, and other regional needs. I have been an IT Manager there running large scale infrastructure.

Tomorrow, I start a new job, at the Minnesota Judicial Center (Supreme Court) of Minnesota. I’ll still be an IT Manager over there, but I’ll be managing a much smaller team than I was last week. I was previously managing 13 different engineers, and in my new position I’ll be managing 4. That will hopefully remove a lot of stress from my life, which is a good thing right now.

My previous boss is a great guy, but he was concerned that I wasn’t advancing my career much with this move. He firmly believes I should be trying for Director and CIO level positions. However, I feel like I have a lot of things in my life, and my job is just one of them. I’d rather be less stressed at work if it means that I can handle the rest of my life easier. I’ll accept that, perhaps, that’s the cost of not moving myself into higher level positions that I know I’m capable of.

Tomorrow starts one of many new adventures coming up this summer. For all my Saint Paul friends, I’ll still be around, just up on Capitol Hill instead of downtown. I’ll still be visiting all my old haunts, just not wandering the skyways quite as much.

Onward to new experiences!

A call for intelligence

Recently, in the whole Roy Moore debate, there was a clip of another elected official in Alabama who was trying to defend Roy Moore’s stance against Islam. The issue that was brought up was being a public official and swearing on a Bible, which this official said that a Muslim could not do. The news host quickly pointed out that Muslims (and people of other faiths) do not swear on a Christian Bible, and instead choose a text that is meaningful to them. The result was complete silence from this official, and a load of embarrassment.

I’m not going to link to the video, since I feel bad for the guy. You can google it easily. But, what struck me hard in watching this is that we’ve lowered our standards for basic knowledge and intelligence from our elected officials. Gone are the days when learned men took up the mantle of leadership, governing with wisdom and knowledge. Instead, we look for our elected officials to be entertaining and engaging, and most importantly, agree with our personal moral agenda.

The shift from knowledge to morality in our leadership is a sad turn in our politics. Running a government is hard work, and ensuring that all the needs of the people are met take real creativity. Government, at all levels, is filled with career civil servants who are trying their hardest to carry out ever changing mandates, and be good stewards of tax payer money. Unfortunately, many officials are elected because of their ability to inflame the passions of those who support them. Not because they have studied and worked hard to learn how to lead and govern.

It’s time for a renaissance in politics. We need to strip away all the money, all the glitz, and get back to the art of public administration. Smart people governing with intelligence and creativity, doing the best that they can for the betterment of society.

Healthcare and Christians, 2017

Back in 2009 I wrote an op-ed on my blog at the time about the role of Christians and healthcare. I think it turned out pretty well, so I felt like this would be a good time to bring it out again. This past week the Republican plan for fixing the ACA died, and very quickly our president pointed fingers at the Democrats, saying that it was now all in their hands as the ACA imploded. I would like to posit that perhaps there is another group of people who really should be at the forefront of healthcare, Christians.

I’ve re-printed my original article below, with some minor edits and tweaks for 2017. I hope that it provokes some critical thinking, and gives you come context about how we ended up where we’re at.

Today on a walk, I was listening to a podcast from a Franciscan friar about the history of Catholic hospitals. This started prodding some thoughts in my head, that have been ruminating there for a while, regarding the topic of a Christian response to the healthcare debate in the United States. History shows us that when it came to bringing healthcare to the people, it was the Christian churches (and all religions in general) that led the cause, and in fact, were the only source of health and healing for most people. As early as 325 AD, the Council of Nicea ordered that every town that had a cathedral, also must provide a hospital to care for the sick. Even the earliest forms of mental heath treatments were links to monks helping people work through psychological issues.

Healthcare activity in the church continued into medieval Europe when Pope Innocent III expanded the role of the hospital in the life of the church as a public institution. He instructed the creation of a place where people could go to receive care, no matter if they could pay. There, the monks and nuns of the church would carry out Jesus’ work to the poor and ill. Even today one can still see the mark of the church on many hospitals here in America with names such as St. John’s and St. Joesph’s.

This wasn’t just a Catholic idea. In 18th century England, John Wesley, evangelist and founder of the Methodist societies, wrote a book called, Primitive Physick: Or, an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. Wesley understood that, in his day, many people would see their priest more often than their doctor, and Wesley believed that priests should be taking care of people in a complete and holistic way. This meant caring for the body as well as soul. He wrote this small book as something that his ministers could carry with them as they traveled, and he compiled the best health knowledge he could find at the time and put it together in a quick and easy to read format.

How does this little history lesson tie into the healthcare debate of the United States today? In a few different ways… When we look at the landscape of health care in our country we can see a few things. We can be proud that we have very advanced medical techniques available to help save lives. We can do amazing things in our modern hospitals. However, those hospitals are often locked to those who can’t pay (beyond emergency services). My mother died years ago from cancer, and she was on public assistance for her healthcare. Even though one could make the argument that she might have gotten better care with a private insurance plan, the fact that she was able to get care at all was a blessing. Having access to healthcare helped to extend her life much further than without. However, in my mother’s case, she was able to get coverage because of the nature of her disability. I wonder how someone in her shoes who didn’t have that ‘luxury’ would have coped?

It’s quite obvious that there’s a problem. Costs are skyrocketing, people can’t afford coverage, the current public options don’t cover everyone who needs coverage and our system doesn’t deal with societies underlying unhealthy lifestyle choices. We have a system that from all vantage points seems broken and on a continuing downhill slide. This is where my personal viewpoint enters into the equation and I need to ask a very simple question.

Where are the Christians in this debate?

For the most part, most Christians (particularly Evangelicals) have bought into the propaganda machines that tell them that Universal Health Coverage is a terrible idea; that its been tried in Canada and it’s failed, that we’re asking for long lines for care, and even the completely absurd notion that we will be allowing other people to tell us when we have to die. Yet, isn’t ‘health care for all’ what the Church has been promoting for over a thousand years? As followers of Christ we should be be going to ‘the least of these’ and bringing the love of Jesus and the healing of our hands into their world? Yet time and time again in this debate, followers of Christ lose sight of the mission. Why shouldn’t they… it’s the reason we’re in this mess to begin with.

You see, the reason why people are opposed to Universal Healthcare is because it means the government would be running it. Why does the government need to run it? Because as modern Christians, we failed. We dropped the ball, looked away, and walked off from a life of service as followers of Christ in order to fulfill some fashion of an American Dream. We’ve decided that our freedom of individual choice is more important than Christ’s words to help and heal the lost and hurting. We’ve elected to focus our time and energies inwards, developing our personal spirituality, without realizing that our spirituality is nothing if it doesn’t show itself in the world. Therefore, since the Church has decided that it is not in the business of healthcare, then someone else needs to step up to the plate. Right now, the only place that is in a position to have enough money and capability to provide Universal Healthcare is the government.

I’ve been a State government worker for 18 years. I know how bloated, and slow, and bureaucratic government institutions can be. However, things still get done, even if they’re not the way we always want to see them done. Government does not have a profit based motivation, but a societal one. Government is about doing what it can for the most people, no matter how inefficient. It’s not perfect, and it often frustrates many people, but without government much of our society wouldn’t exist.

As Christians, we’ve decided that healthcare (and education for many Protestants as well) no longer belong in the day to day activities of our religious life. Despite the fact that we’ve decided, willingly chosen even, to abrogate our responsibilities to some one else, that doesn’t change the imperative. Our faith is still a faith grounded on the teachings of Christ, that we need to help those who are sick and poor. If we can’t do it ourselves than we need to look to supporting someone, or something, else that will accomplish this. Just because we don’t want to do the dirty work ourselves, doesn’t change what Christ said. Just because we don’t like government, doesn’t change what Christ said. Just because we don’t want to ‘give up control’, doesn’t change what Christ said.

Christ said “truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me. (Matt 25:40)” As Christians… what are we doing… or not doing… to Christ? Today’s New Testament reading was from James 2, and I want to close with this passage for thought. As followers of Christ, let’s take a moment to truly consider where we’re standing in this whole healthcare debate. Think hard about what Christ teaches us about how we should treat those around us. I’m not a ‘pro-government-nut-job’, so I’m not trying to say that the government is the only answer. But until the Church stands up to its responsibility as an institution of Christ on Earth, we need to seek out the best way to still carry out our mission in Christ.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17 ESV)

Government as a business – perks

I’ve been in the public sector for almost 17 years. One of the more unique aspects of public servant life is the notion of a different standard of ethics that in other domains. Specifically, there are rules around the dollar amount of gifts that you can receive from vendors (something like $25). I can certainly see the benefit of this, as when I was in the private sector the amount of money that would get spent by vendors trying to woo our business were sometimes insane. As public servants we’re not there to make a lot of personal gains.

However, one aspect of this is that it is often very difficult for governmental organizations to do reward staff appropriately. This is often displayed with the notion of purchasing food for public servants. Many times in the IT world, staff are asked to work late hours, and sometimes during major outages this could require very long shifts. However, there are many complicated rules in place about purchasing food for consumption by staff using public money. As a manager, I pretty much have to pay for any perks, like pizza for a hard working team, out of my own pocket.

This also shows in how hard it is to put on large professional development gatherings. The organization I work for manages one large gathering a year for management staff, with all the regular perks, but it is an exception to the rule. The animus about paying for public servant perks with taxpayer money becomes so contentious that many organizations simply avoid dealing with it, and do nothing at all.

This has two detrimental effects. First, it limits how we can reward staff for doing a really good job during a crisis situation. Second, it makes it hard to retain talent that can be woo’d by the abundant perks in the private sector. For the couple of years I was a private sector employee I loved having a corporate American Express card, and staying in nice hotels on business trips. But as a government employee, we’re told to make do with as little as possible.

The public demands that our government services are 100% reliable and available at all times, and when something doesn’t work right (especially in the technology sector) we catch a lot of hell. Yet, we’re hamstrung in how we develop and retain staff by citizen worry that their money might buy a hardworking server engineer a $10 pizza.

Government is not a business

(WARNING: Political post!)

I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years working as a public servant. I’ve worked at a handful of government agencies for most of my career, and I feel like I’ve lived and breathed it for long enough to consider myself an expert insider. I’ve also spent a few years in the private sector, including a stint at a massive multi-national corporation. As we inaugurate a new president who campaigned under the premise that he could run the country better because he was a businessman, I felt that I needed to speak up on why I see this as a bad thing.

First, I freely admit that there are many processes that are similar between government and business. As someone who runs a very large IT infrastructure, I rely on good business practices to guide how day to day work gets done. I want to ensure that everything that I do is efficient and well managed, because when all is said and done, that makes everyone’s lives easier. Yet, sharing a desire for solid processes and practices does not mean that government and business are the same. The reason is that at the core, businesses exist for consumers, and government exists for citizens.

A consumer is driven by the motivation of value. A consumer is concerned with purchasing the best product or service for the lowest cost, balancing these two concepts to their advantage. There may certainly be some social altruism involved (i.e. fair trade coffee), but consumers will still measure this altruism by the amount of money they can justify spending on a product or service.

On the other hand, a citizen is motivated by the concept of community preservation. It doesn’t matter where someone falls on the spectrum of libertarian to socialist, the motivation still revolves around the community that surrounds the individual. Community motivation means that decisions are based upon what is best for the people involved in, and surrounding, that community.

Let me share a practical example. In my job I work for a governmental organization that manages all of the wastewater treatment in the metropolitan area. Wastewater is something that affects every single person whenever we flush our toilets. As a society we have decided that letting human waste simply flow into the streets is bad for our communities. It’s also bad for our health, food supply, and numerous other issues. Therefore, we’ve decided that we should develop sewers to bring our wastewater away from our communities and treat it before putting the water back into the ecological system.

It’s not cheap to do this work, and there are massive pieces of infrastructure involved in releasing only clean, drinkable water back into the river. A consumerist view of this endeavor would involve paying for our sewer system to funnel all of our wastewater away from our homes. We would all consider this a good value, as it gets rid of our shit (literally) for the cost of putting pipes in the ground. However, from a consumer value perspective, continuing to treat this water to make it clean enough to drink doesn’t make sense. It’s much cheaper to simply flush everything down the river, since the river will carry that wastewater to a different community. The cost is simply too high to be a good value for an individual.

However, a citizen perspective is focused on the betterment of the community. Not only is it important for a community to funnel it’s waste away from where people live, but it is equally important to not pollute the source of drinking water for other communities apart from our own. There is little consumer value in doing this, as once the waste is funneled away from our homes, we’ve achieved the purpose of flushing our toilet. Yet as citizen, we choose not to stop there, and we look at how we can ensure a better world for those that would be affected by our waste.

Many government programs don’t make sense from a business perspective. They benefit small groups of people and are paid for by people who could be spending their money in other ways. However, government is built upon the principle of being by the people, for the people, for the betterment of our society. The opening to the Constitution states:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

At no point in that opening does the concept of consumer value enter into the equation. The purpose of government is to provide for a society that is robust and whole. The purpose of a business is to attain wealth, while providing products and services at a good value to consumers.

As our country enters a new era of politics, let’s stop and remember what the purpose of government is. Big or small, a government is there to provide for a “more perfect Union” of our communities. We can argue about what areas of society should be our focus, or how laws should be carried out, but we can never argue about the need to look beyond the best value for our money to find the best solution to the community’s problem.

I pray that our new government doesn’t try to make itself look too much like a business, and remembers where it’s efforts should be focused. I worry when I read about proposed large scale cuts to programs like the National Endowment for the Arts, and how that loss will affect the quality of our communities, in order to save a few bucks. Government isn’t a business, and it should always stay that way.