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Tough Times in Michigan!

Below is a blog I posted internally on our Oakland County web site. I wanted to share it with you to see if people outside Michigan have some thouights for us. Here you go!

Are there tough times in Michigan? Are people wondering if they have a future and what that future will hold?

I recently had an experience that made me think about what our future may hold. As my family and I sat on the tarmac at Detroit Metropolitan Airport for two hours, I watched carefully the reactions of my fellow travelers as we waited for news about a minor maintenance malfunction. Some sat back calmly and waited for news, while others became agitated trying to leave the plane for their sought-after connecting flight. My family didn’t have the pressure of missing another flight, but I tried to place myself in their shoes and wonder if I could be calm when everything I had planned was falling apart around me. Having no control over the outcome can be frustrating and bring people to the brink of meltdown.

I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to the current economic situation in Michigan. We have little or no control over the freefall that our economy is in, and many are melting down under the pressure as they witness their investments and assets, like their homes, de-value. Are they scrambling to change their plans for retirement or debating whether they can send their children to college? Like a missed airline connection, are they displaced from their carefully planned out futures?

Diversifying our economy will give us some control over our destiny — just like making the decision to leave the plane or stay onboard hoping for the best. I am fortunate to work for a visionary, our County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who is looking out into the future to lure the companies of the “new economy” to our region. He realized early on that we must diversify our economy in Michigan and launched his Emerging Sectors program with incredible success. Considering his actions, I realize that we do have some control in this economic climate, but the larger market forces must be successful if we are to grow our economy. Every company that makes change happen, big or small, in partnership with visionary government leadership, is making the economy grow.

Back to my weary travelers who are fighting to get to their destination with no control over their destiny, I draw a correlation with our citizens that may be either losing their jobs (or just trying to make ends meet) with little or no control over their destiny as well. They need government services now more than they have ever needed them in the past. How will we deliver these services as our revenue declines? How will we decide who receives services and who will not?

As a public servant I learned early in my career that delivering services efficiently and cost effectively is not an easy task. Technology now plays a key role in streamlining our processes and driving more services out to the public, Oakland County government is more “open” to citizens today than ever before because of our investment in technology. Accessing government over the web has grown from a few transactions in 1998 to millions in 2009. Embracing the web has allowed us to reengineer our service delivery platform which in turn has changed the way citizens interact with government.

A County Commissioner asked me the other day, “Are we being cost effective with our technology investment and is it still worth spending so much?” I thought to myself, we have been making these investments for years and as a result we have been changing the relationship between citizens and government. I impulsively responded, “We could go back to providing services with pencil and paper and you could hire hundreds of additional people to accomplish what we are accomplishing with technology.” The ensuing conversation was much more productive, but I later realized that this Commissioner was frustrated with our financial situation and was probably being approached by frustrated citizens about the cost of government. In essence, they were frustrated that their individual plans had been altered and they had no control over the situation, just like the travelers I watched on my flight.

In my opinion, investing in technology for strategic change to government is needed now more than ever. People will argue that it may be more important to provide services directly to people and not continue to spend funds on expensive technology initiatives. I would argue that it is the enabling technologies that are streamlining the delivery of services to millions of citizens — and that technology will be a key element in the reengineering of everything government does. Change the process of government by using technology to enable that streamlining effort, and bring down the cost, and ultimately gain greater control over our destiny. A continued investment in technology ensures government services will be delivered cost-effectively and efficiently, and be more readily available to more people than ever before.

My family watched as many people disembarked from the plane that day to begin trying to gain some control over their destiny. Little did they know that right after they began their alternate journey, the maintenance problem was fixed and the plane was pushed back from the gate. I wonder if they regret not hanging in and riding out the tough times to get to their good times? Maybe that is what we need in Michigan. Maybe we need to ride out the tough times while working together to gain control over our destiny. Maybe we need to embrace technology more in these tough times to help us get there. What do you think?

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Profile Photo David Dejewski

Phil,
I am both a Fed and an Entrepreneur. I am a GS-15 who also owns and operates a private company. We take on partners to acquire and manage commercial-residential real estate in emerging markets around the country (apartment buildings). I have a pretty solid opinion, as anyone who buys commercial real estate would, on what constitutes a “good” market vs a “bad” or weak market and sub-market. Good investors consider the market before the property.

Counties need to be attractive to businesses in order to grow. This usually starts with proactive local leadership. It seems like your County Executive is thinking about the problem and making that important first step through his Emerging Sectors program. I don’t know what the details of that program are, but something like this usually includes tax abatement and other basic incentives, clear definition of the path of progress, transparency and good marketing.

Guys like me (who bring money into communities) keep our ears to the ground for signs of strong local leadership and the first indicators that businesses are responding – jobs announcements and/or new construction. Jobs announcements mean population growth – every job announced will also need a butcher, baker and candlestick maker in the community to support them. New construction workers, temporary move in’s, and supporting residents who can’t afford to live in the most expensive areas will seek apartment housing.

If the local leadership are savvy about the laws of supply and demand, and erect barriers to physical growth (i.e. through zoning), then values of current properties are bound to rise as demand increases. This creates the kind of conditions I can “sell” to investing partners. Once money starts rolling in and values go up, carefully open the valves on new construction once more – announcing your intentions ahead of time.

Remember that guys like me need to “sell” a market / sub-market and property to investors and banks. I don’t have $8 million in my back pocket to drop on improving properties there. Why would I want to invest in Oakland County, Michigan when I can invest in Houston or the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas? Put another way, why would my partners, to whom I have a fiduciary responsibility, want me to plunk their money in Oakland County Michigan vs some other market that has greater profit potential? Answer that question and money will start flowing in your direction.

Want to invest tax payer dollars in something that will improve the local economy? In my opinion, they are best spent in ways that make it easy and profitable to do business there.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

I think it is the trick of cycles…when you are in the midst of good times, it is hard to imagine that things can ever turn bad. When things are bad, it is hard to even imagine it bouncing back.

I’m with you that I think technology is needed now more than ever. There are so many efficiencies to be gained via technology if done correctly that can help citizens. Especially as more than ever there are cost-effective ways to engage citizens whether delivering information, getting input, or engage them in the policy-making process.

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Profile Photo Thomas Tong

Phil, I truly appreciate how you have articulated the simplicity, yet complex duality of “control”, while bringing in the technology factor. Interesting post! My random thoughts…

I have many friends in Michigan, and a part of my heart beats there. First of all, I would say that my friends in Michigan are frustrated, disillusioned, and anxious. Many are looking to leave~yet are torn to make such a dramatic decision, largely due to family and historical ties to the state. Some have left. I do not see a challenge with taking on “change”. In fact, I see most wanting change, or more accurately transformation.

Change is rooted in the past. People in Michigan see a need to break free from the past. In conversations, my Michigan friends are looking for new ideas and possibility…grounded in the future. they are looking for innovative leadership…and many feel leadership is lacking. Leadership skills and effective professionals are even more in need…as the dollar and federal/state/local resources need to make a huge different. There is little room for error, procrastination, misdirection, or false-starts.

Part of this transformation is the effective use of technology. I align with the value of technology as a means of citizen-centric government services. It can save money, or at least increase services for the same dollar. Most people that question such an investment generally do not understand the full benefits…

A few thoughts about technology…

1) be a steward of educating them on the value and possibility of technology. you certainly are very articulate and can convey complex ideas.
2) acknowledge that there are cohorts that do not understand technology, and are even threatened by technology…such groups will need more support in its use…such people may only access “traditional services”. They are not wrong for being where they are. Ease them along by acknowledging concerns or misunderstanding, while inviting a constructive dialogue that doesn’t make you look like a “tech evangelist”
3) technology strategies must include methods of enrolling people on its value and use…and make it non-threatening. This is an important part of the planning. Do not reduce the budget on the outreach part… I have seen many projects produce phenomenal technology possibilities, only to fail in the “connection”. In your role, push for the connection as much as the actual technology platform

Thanks for sharing. With respect and gratitude, Thomas.

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