OP-ED: A wrong-headed draft document

OP-ED: A wrong-headed draft document
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By David Rogers. August 12, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Tuesday’s regular monthly meeting of the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners would be relatively routine except for the two discussion items on the agenda being potentially controversial.

Under Old Business, there will be discussion and potential adoption of the recently proposed “Town Manager Evaluation Form (Draft),” a document supposedly designed for use by a municipal governing body to collectively gauge the effectiveness and performance of the Town’s top administrative hired gun.

It took one Google search to find the template document from the National League of Cities (NLC) upon which one or all of the Blowing Rock commissioners have chosen as the basis for their evaluation form. Most of the category headings and language in the Blowing Rock draft are identical to the NLC form (CLICK HERE for a copy of the NLC template).

We don’t need a piledriver to swat a gnat.

Although we questioned the motivation of at least one commissioner in advancing this initiative in an earlier editorial (CLICK HERE to revisit, “A town council too far in the weeds”), having an evaluation tool for any position can be useful. But we find three problems with the draft document as presented (CLICK HERE for the Blowing Rock commissioners’ adaptation from the NLC template).

First, the level of granularity of the proposed evaluation form is arguably more appropriate for CITIES rather than the village or small town that Blowing Rock advertises itself. That is not to say that a small town deserves any less professionalism in its administration, but cities are more complex. Even if the overall categorical needs are identical whatever the size of the jurisdiction, a larger municipality’s size and scope will usually bring into play more variables — and possibly more deserving of a detailed approach.

Rather than select the more exhaustive evaluation form template of the NLC, the commissioners should consider emulating a simpler one, such as the one authored by the Washington, DC-based International City/County Management Association. It is a 10-question document covering the same general categories of review but without the sometimes silliness of detail found in the presented draft when applied to a small village (CLICK HERE to see the ICMA template).

Second, we have to wonder whether all of the detailed areas of review in this 35-question proposed document are clearly outlined in the job description that leads to the Town Manager’s application for the job, as well as his or her eventual selection. Will the current and future holders of the town manager position know in advance what standards they are being judged against? Or will they be subjected to these standards for review as a surprise afterthought?

Sometimes mistakes are obvious, other times they are equally as serious as the obvious ones but more subtle in their understanding.

Third, and this is our most important criticism, the Blowing Rock commissioners’ draft is nearly identical to the order and articulation of the NLC template, but where they have deviated from the original is where the amateurish-ness of the localized draft adaptation becomes glaring.

Crafting surveys and evaluation forms is a professional’s domain. Yes, there are experts who get paid to develop the right surveys and evaluation criteria appropriate to the occasion or mission.  Articulating the RIGHT question or standard by which an employee is to be judged is both an art form as well as a science. It cannot be accidental nor casual because there are unintended consequences or ramifications if not composed thoughtfully. Sometimes mistakes are obvious, other times they are equally as serious as the obvious ones but more subtle in their understanding.

As an example, the Blowing Rock commissioners’ draft includes the fifth section, “Communication with Citizens,” where it deviates significantly from the NLC template.

Curiously, the Blowing Rock draft dismisses the fifth section of the NLC document, “Reporting” (to the governing body). Perhaps the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners does not require reporting from the Town Manager. but that strikes us as counter-intuitive.

Obvious English punctuation and grammar concerns aside, bigger (in this case, longer) is not always better, nor is adding overly specific detail.

Instead, the editors of this draft document have inserted “Communication with Citizens,” which ostensibly is an adaptation of the NLC’s sixth segment, “Citizen Relations.” A couple of the five questions are taken straight out of the NLC template, but the deviations reflect an amateur attempt to localize the Blowing Rock document, perhaps even with an agenda if you read between the lines.

For instance, the NLC document’s first item is “Responsive to citizen requests.”  The Blowing Rock draft document reads, “Manager is responsible for addressing citizens requests or concerns within 1-2 working days.”

Obvious English punctuation and grammar concerns aside, bigger (in this case, longer) is not always better, nor is adding overly specific detail.  Why 1-2 working days? Why not within two hours or half a day? Which working days? A newspaper editor’s working days? A professional football player’s working days? A restaurant server’s working days? If you are going to start getting specific, then you have to specify. That’s the problem with not staying more general in asking the question.

Perhaps the most amateurish example of trying to craft a locally customized document by non-professionals is where the Blowing Rock draft reads under the Communication with Citizens heading, “Recognizes the right of all citizens to influence local decisions.”

Really? What you more than likely meant to say was, “Recognizes the right of all citizens to TRY to influence local decisions.” Think about it. If all citizens’ exhortations actually had an impact on a local decision, what you would end up with is the proverbial horse designed by committee — a camel. Where people have different values, priorities, and agendas, not all of those “influences” are going to have the same objective, so no unanimity in the result.

We urge the Blowing Rock Commissioners to reject the currently proposed draft and to rethink the mission. One might argue that an evaluation form should have been adopted by earlier town councils years ago, but this is an ill-conceived document, poorly composed in being adapted from the NLC template, and overkill in its excessive granularity. We don’t need a piledriver to swat a gnat.

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