A Man with a Plan

(from Maine Townsman, January 2008)
Liz Chapman Mockler, Freelance Writer

       Glenn Aho was 26 when he drove through Lincoln in 1995 and straight into a political storm to accept his first job as a town manager.  Local government was hunkered down against attacks and unable to effectively respond to the public’s needs. Everyone protected their own piece of tile.  “Without trust and accountability, the government was turned upside down,” Aho recalled during a recent interview in his neatly cluttered office on Main Street. “The environment was embarrassing, it was so messy. When I was hired, (the council) told me, “Straighten things out or we’ll find someone who can.’”

       Aho, now 12 years removed from the initial maelstrom, still finds himself under fire each time a town employee quits. So many have left over the years that Aho understands the public perception that perhaps it’s the manager who is driving people away.

       But as Aho would say, in the soft-spoken but plain-speaking way, “I don’t think it’s my management style that upsets people. It’s what I expect of them. If you can’t produce, you don’t work for me.  The natural expectation of management is results.”

Boston to Bridgewater

       Aho was born in Boston and spent summers on his family’s farm in Bridgewater, driving through Lincoln each trip since the Interstate then was still unfinished that far north.

       He loved the farm, he said, finding great allure, even as a boy, with the noticeable results he could see from his work in the fields and dirt. And so he was joyous when his mother wanted to move the family to the farm permanently in the early 1970s, during the famous back-to-the-land movement that redefined rural America and took Aho exactly where he wanted to go.

       “So much of who I am today is because of that farm in Bridgewater,” he said. “I loved that I could see very tangible results and I carried that through my education and now here.”

       Aho faced enough challenges when he arrived in 1995 that he easily could have slipped into the morass. Even with his good education, including a master’s degree in public administration, he had only two years of experience — both in Brewer and the first one as an intern. But instead of slipping, Aho lunged directly into two major projects that would set the tone and the stage for everything that would come.

       One, he sought public input to identify the town’s specific problems with town government and, most important to Aho, the causes of the malfunction. Then he began writing a managerial plan for himself first, and then for each of his department managers.

       Second, he began writing a weekly newsletter to keep residents updated on what was happening, hoping to quell concerns and squelch rumors – and there were lots of both, he said.

       Even today, when the town faces a problem, big or small, Aho seeks public input so everyone agrees on the problems and knows all the options. And 12 years after launching the newsletter, Aho continues to write the popular weekly update 48 weeks a year.

       “When I first started (the newsletter), my department managers didn’t want much to do with it. Now they compete to get the lead position because they know it’s being read and that it helps inform the public that our employees are doing their jobs. It creates value for our citizens.” Aho said.

       The direct and consistent communication hasn’t quieted all town critics over the years, or always helped avert controversy, he said. But at least everyone is debating the same facts and options, and not running on rumor, speculation or bad information.

       “This government is talking,” Aho said. “We talk to the community. They know what is going on as much as any upper level manager here.”

Too much, too many

       When Aho identified Lincoln’s core governmental problems a dozen years ago, one stood out: It wasn’t that money or assets were being misused, it was that resources were not being managed. 

       Aho said the cause of the problem also was glaring: The town was providing virtually no management training to municipal staff.  It was every good-intentioned employee for himself and the only way to protect jobs was to keep it that way. Even an innocent, simple offer to help someone could become an ordeal.

       Without proper management systems in place— which Aho believes exists in many towns in Maine — no one had to take responsibility and no one was held accountable.

       “I have come under a lot of criticism because of the turnover, and I still do,” he said. “Department managers have left because they don’t see the value of managing resources.  It’s been frustrating at times because someone leaves just when we get a good team going. I know this won’t please some people, but there are way too many people in public service positions (in Maine) who don’t understand management.  Management plans are going to scare a lot of people and they should.”

       Even people who are open to change and want new opportunities can be intimidated by Aho’s management outline. For example, some department managers did not want to put the effort into management and chose to leave. 

       Aho said he understands people’s fear of management and its demands. Even for him he said, “It took years before I had the courage to publicly admit when I was wrong.”  But once that barrier dropped, he noticed everyone else was more willing to reveal their mistakes and ask for help.

       The gravest mistake any government employee can make, Aho said, is to think their public job gives them power over the public.

      “It’s a position of trust, not power,” he said.

An honest policy

       Aho is honest with the people he hires, he said. They get their own copy of a management orientation to assist them in developing their ownmanagement plan for their department. 

       Aho’s managerial plan contains everything a new department manager needs to know about managing a department and people.  The town’s standards and expectations are clear, if high, including mandatory education, training and certification.

       New employees don’t just get the book, either. They get a commitment by the town to provide management training for good people interested in long-term service.  They also get opportunities and rewards, such as a regular chance to argue for change – and get it.

       The sense Aho felt when he arrived in town 12 years ago is long gone – that some civil service employees thought their job gave them power over the public and that they would have a job as long as they wanted it, regardless of whether they could or would do the work.

       “Local government is the best government because it is closest to the people it serves. But if we don’t aggressively improve the management training process for civil servants, and come up with strategic plans on how to train employees and solve problems, we do a disservice to the public and to the employees who have no experience but are put in public service positions and then expected to produce results.”

       Aho said managerial education is essential to making his strategy work. People who are better qualified and more self-confident give the public the best value for their taxes. And he doesn’t just talk about ongoing education; he provides it. 

       “People don’t mind eating at an expensive restaurant because they know they’ll get a good value,” he said. “(Municipal) government is not presently producing the results and the value it should. To improve, we need to make hard decisions and that’s not easy. ... It takes honesty, accountability, attention to details, conflict and trust.

       “Management takes guts, it really does,” he said.

Tears and fears

       “It was not always pleasant. God, no,” said Tax Assessor Ruth Birtz. While smiling, she said, “He dragged us all kicking and screaming” into the new, much more structured management system; New rules, expectations, demands, goals, objectives and accountability. There is more accountability, structure, more professionalism,” Birtz said. “It’s a lot easier. There is no gray area. What is expected is clearly spelled out and there is a process to help people get it done.”

       Town Clerk Lisa Goodwin said Lincoln town office employees over the past 10 years have grown from being insecure and defensive when someone tried to learn their job or help them out, to now welcoming assistance and being able to cover for virtually anyone in their departments.

       Both longtime managers said they feel better about themselves professionally and appreciate being at the top of their fields because of the management guidance they’ve received from their town manager. 

       The growth and progress now being seen throughout the municipal ranks took years of loyal effort by everyone. For the managers, their weekly meetings became a time when tears, fears and sheer frustration were understood and accepted as they worked continually to re-tool the way they ran their departments and did their jobs – and then re-write the management plan until they thought it was right.

       For the front-line workers, additional responsibility and respect have suited them well, Goodwin said. Even someone who has little public speaking experience will put aside her nervousness and eagerly accept an invitation to make a presentation to the weekly department managers meeting.

       The responsibilities and protocols for each municipal position have been written down in the event someone doesn’t know how to do someone else’s job, in a pinch. Each person must partner with someone else and know exactly how their office functions. 

       “People laugh when I say this,” Aho offered as the clerk and assessor started laughing, “but if I died in the night, someone could come in here and pick up where I left off.”

       “Everything they need to know is right here,” he said, tapping the thick plastic binder. “I am very proud of that.”

Spreading the word

       Aho recently made an in-depth management and leadership presentation to the New England Town and City Clerks’ Association. He brought his management plan, a dozen years in the writing. Goodwin, who also attended, helped refine and improve the town’s management plan and protocols over the years and could tell the audience first-hand how difficult, and rewarding, the work has been.

       Aho said the clerks’ response to his presentation was gratifying and validating. Many of the New England clerks said they worked on the fly, even today, with vague authority, unwritten responsibilities, little direction and no real professional support.

       Some clerks talked about employees who were good people, but not-so-good at their jobs, in many cases only because no one had taken the time to properly train them. Others described the Lincoln of the past, where people protected their jobs by keeping them mysterious and vague, and unqualified people, over time, dragged down those who were not.

      “They just soaked it up,” Goodwin said of the 86 clerks from five states who attended the December conference. “They were really hungry for something like this.”

      Aho said the clerks reaffirmed his belief that the first problem many governments face is failing to undertake management efforts. If they did, they would likely find that improved management training is essential to making the repairs.

      Aho said he disagree Gov. John Baldacci’s premise that regionalism is the primary answer to Maine’s high government costs. He doesn’t even buy the argument it would save money. Instead, making local and state government more efficient and less forgiving, mostly by making sure people are qualified and accountable, should be the starting point, he said.

       “Restricting the people’s access to its government through regionalization and conglomeration could make matters worse, especially if it’s found managerial problems were the root of the problem all along,” he said.

       “Better management will yield more results and value than any other attempt to reform our state and local governments,” he said. “With local access and accountability, the integrity of democracy is maintained and its people are more empowered and connected with their government. This supports the very essence of democracy.”