What Plumbers Can Teach Public Managers

When a program is dysfunctional, the problem is often in the pipes and valves it flows through.
November 2, 2016
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

I've been intrigued for many years by the things one can learn from the concepts underlying hydraulics. It is an axiom of highway planning, for example, that engineering hydraulics predict much of the phenomena experienced in traffic flow. Hydraulics explains, for example, why it takes so much longer to clear a traffic backup after an accident than it does for the backup to develop. And it explains how a single driver can trigger those infuriating "no cause" stoppages.

But engineering aside, much of public management rests on virtual "plumbing." As in preventing a household plumbing emergency, careful attention to throughput capacities, sticky valves, identification of blockages and plugging of leaks is essential. Otherwise, speculation of causes or cures can result in misleading metrics, lost resources and frustrated citizens.

Any public manager faced with backlogs, overflows and inexplicable dysfunction would do well do systematically examine the pipes and valves through which a program is flowing to better identify where problems lie. Here are a couple of illustrations:

During the mortgage foreclosure crisis, thousands of families with unexpected economic setbacks missed mortgage payments and were immediately swept into the maw of bank servicing agents that executed rapid foreclosures. Neighborhoods were decimated, families were disrupted and housing values plummeted. The cases were a firehose into the courts, and households were losing their homes so quickly that interventions were often too late.

Yet the cascading tragedy was not entirely a reflection of the volume of families losing economic wherewithal. In Philadelphia, a presiding judge examined the flow of cases coming into her court and realized that banks and their agents were short-circuiting procedural requirements that would have slowed the process and given households time to figure out options to save their homes. Lacking any metering valve, the banks were submitting imperfect documents by the thousands and failing to offer mortgagees direct access to a decision-maker at the lender. The resulting pileup of uprooted families and vacant housing made federal interventions that were being devised to help families too late or too little for many.

The judge's solution was to establish "conciliation conferences" to force face-to-face negotiations presided over by the court. It created a pause in the process where analysis and diagnosis was possible to identify root causes and problems along the pipeline. The new procedure also provided clearer visibility of possible malfeasance before it was compounded through hundreds, even thousands, of cases.

In another case, adoptions of children in Pennsylvania's state child welfare system had slowed to a trickle. Managers, under pressure to improve their numbers, proposed massive public-service advertising to attract more adoptive families. But examination of the steps in the process -- from termination of parental rights to identification of adoptive families to matching of children with permanent homes to completion of adoption in the courts -- revealed that broad-scale advertising would have been counterproductive.

There were several reasons. Counties had no capacity to review more prospective interested families in a timely way, and past experience showed that most families who responded to general invitations were not interested in children in the child welfare system, who tended to be older or in sibling groups. The delay in adoptions -- the blockage in the plumbing -- was instead in the courts, which had not prioritized final adoptions of children who were living with foster families who wished to adopt them. The children were still under the supervision of the overworked county agencies.

With light shed on the problem and shifts in resources, adoptions doubled within a year, and specialized funding to help agencies find families that were open to welcoming child welfare cases accelerated the process further.

These examples illustrate how public-agency problem-solving often requires a closer look at the sequential steps to identify where a problem may be occurring. It is often in a seemingly inconsequential step where the source of the problem and the solution will be found. If we approach it wearing a plumber's cap, we stand a good chance of finding a solution much more quickly.