By Brandon Ward
The Conceit of Outside Knowledge
One of the most common mistakes made by some of my acquaintances (after I tell them that I work for DOT) is the practice of thinking that I know things about traffic engineering simply because I work for DOT. Certainly as an engineer, I could pontificate giving an outside opinion about traffic engineering by dropping a few technical terms during the course of a conversation. For example, DOT recently re-engineered the lane markings at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Empire Boulevard in Brooklyn. The new design does not match my inexperienced idea of how the traffic should be channeled at this intersection. From my driver’s view, reducing the number of lanes from three to two while having to share one of the remaining lanes with a bus stop, a Wendy’s drive- thru entrance/exit and a right turn-only lane is faulty. From my pedestrian view, it seems that the elimination of a buffer zone between the curb lane and pedestrian sidewalk is also faulty.
Here’s the point of the foregoing example. Even though my opinion seems deep and certain, it is nonetheless specious. The opinion is based on outside experience (my experience as a driver, who happens to be an engineer) as opposed to inside experience (the experience of a traffic engineer whose professional training and thinking is traffic management). This common mistake is generally the result of the conceit of outside knowledge. It is a conceit not dissimilar to the common idea that one can write a book simply because one has read so many of them. Or that one can think about things one is not involved with. Like Mayor Bloomberg’s new emergency response plan that puts the Police Department (instead of the Fire Department) initially in charge of emergency scenes where chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear material is suspected.
That said, the seemingly preferred management orthodoxy (outside leadership with outside knowledge) of the administration is troubling. For instance, Mayor Bloomberg appointed a nontraditional chancellor, Joel Klein, to spearhead the reforms of the nation’s largest public school system and Iris Weinshall to improve NYC’s traffic management. Curiously, Mr. Klein’s background as an antitrust lawyer was to breakup companies (i.e., Microsoft) and Ms. Weinshall’s twenty-year career experience with city government has been largely confined to public administration. As Chief Peter Hyden (the city’s highest-ranking fire officer) might say, albeit in the context of the administration’s Citywide Incident Management System (CIMS), “it makes no sense.”
Certainly, I do not write as a detached observer to reality. It’s a reality I have seen with all its demoralizing permutations in my agency, DOT. I daresay, since the Dinkins administration, the agency’s leadership has descended from the perspicacity of Commissioner Lou Riccio, Ph.D. P.E to the imperial hubris of the commissioner de jour Iris Weinshall.
Unfortunately, little attention (in my view) is given to the fact that characteristic to the notion, “to the victor belong the spoils,” is the disturbing reality that political victories sometimes impose clumsy appointments on the professional workforce of city agencies. Surprisingly, very little discernment is required to notice Commissioner Weinshall’s political strings: she is married to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. Not surprisingly however, is the fact that since her appointment to the agency and declaration (“to work in government and make it work”), one cannot ignore the good commissioner’s management goal is seemingly to remake the agency according to her liking. After all, five of the agency’s eight deputy commissioners (including the agency’s First Deputy Commissioner) have no professional background in transportation whatsoever.
Truth be told, there is seemingly an unavoidable schizophrenia associated with an abstract noun like “experience” in the context of hiring and promotions in the agency. In fact, while it is not slanderous for the administration or agency head to choose the person that they deem the “best fit” (a sanitized word of loyalty) for a position, loyalty-driven hiring has undermined the professional and intellectual integrity of mission-critical areas of agencies. Needless to say, the cumulative effect of the “conceit of outside knowledge” on the professional workforce is demoralizing. Examples abound in the Department of Education’s “reforms” to DOT’s failure to provide “central guidance and uniform procedures” for its ferry operations prior to the tragic ferry crash in October 2003.
Certainly, in light of the foregoing facts, one is impelled to ask the question: “How does an agency (or department) go bankrupt (intellectually, that is)? Answer: Using Ernest Hemingway’s response (in his book, The Sun Also Rises); two ways. “Gradually, and then suddenly.”
Brandon L. Ward is president of the NYC Chapter of Blacks In Government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.