In the month since Mayor Irene J. Elia took office, one thing has become clear: A new style of management has hit town.
Richard N. Knowles, a volunteer management consultant, has turned up everywhere -- often in the company of the mayor.
Knowles attends her meetings with department heads and sits in on City Council meetings. He also has met separately with middle management employees in several departments.
Just what is this volunteer consulting all about? A "shift in thinking," he said.
Knowles is working with city officials to change their approach to running city government, which he described as a "shift from seeing organizations as machines to living systems" to increase effectiveness.
Knowles has formed an informal partnership with the new administration to test some theories from the business world, far from the political arena of city government. But he has faith in what he preaches.
"We're pushing the envelope," said Knowles, who has had sessions with Elia and her new department heads, the City Council and managerial-level employees in the Fire and Water departments. Elia said the employees meet with Knowles on a voluntary basis.
In the sessions, Knowles explains his system, and the participants flesh out nine categories: their collective identity, structuring themselves into a team, their goals, the problems and issues they face, their relationships, principles and standards by which they will operate, their physical work, sharing information and what they are learning.
Department heads have defined themselves as people with high intentions and integrity dedicated to serving the city. They want to produce honest, professional, credible and efficient government that focuses on improving customer service without raising taxes.
"I hope to achieve a cohesiveness within the management team, and this philosophy will permeate down to workers and residents," Elia said.
Department heads have agreed to operate openly, share all information and support each other and the mayor. They also have committed to spending 30 minutes a week at meetings to discuss how well they are adhering to the intentions and principles they have set.
The process, in part, depends on keeping everyone inside "a glass bowl," Knowles said, so they constantly focus on their initial intentions.
Knowles has applied his theories in business, industry and schools and now is testing them in the highly volatile political arena of city government.
"The question in my mind was: In a political situation, will this stuff work? There's receptivity, and when there's receptivity this thing pays off," he said.
He said he has found people "excited and cautious. In different ways, people have been burned and disappointed. If they see change they'll move; if they're willing to do this, astonishing things can happen."
"Nobody can force them to, but the invitation has to be extended. I'm pretty optimistic, so we'll just have to wait and see," Knowles said.
"You have to get organized first," Councilman Paul A. Dyster agreed. "The temptation is to go out and fill potholes, but when you get back, did you fill the right one and fill it with the right material?"
"The danger is, while you're doing all this, the issues start driving things," said Dyster, a former college professor who is familiar with the organizational theories Knowles is promoting. "The other danger is, you plow ahead on the issues, and you don't know how you get the organization to work and who does what. I think the voters would like to see us get it right. I don't think they'll mind if we take a little longer to get it organized."
Still, Councilman John G. Accardo and Councilwoman Frances M. Iusi point out that at some point the theories have to translate into action so that residents can see improvements in their daily lives -- such as filled potholes.
"We've got to translate the model into visible things the people can see," Iusi said. "It doesn't matter what we see if it doesn't translate into something they can see in their own back yard. How do we take this lofty model and translate it down to concrete things they can see?"
Knowles is touching on some concrete governmental issues, such as personnel practices. He recently told the Council that the role of city government needs to be clarified. The Fire Department, he said, has been helping residents with broken hoses and cats in trees. Residents have become accustomed to turning to the firefighters when all else fails, and the firefighters go out and help.
Knowles questioned whether that should be the role of a municipal fire service.
Personnel performance standards and procedures also are ragged and must be tightened, he said. He also cited a need for management training.
Knowles, a Wheatfield resident, has been around the city off and on since 1983, when he was manager of the E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. plant. The community, he says, is looking for meaning.
Over two decades, he has been "just perplexed by why a city like this continues to go downhill." But he also has lived and worked elsewhere and says: "Niagara Falls is not unique. So many of our governments are trying to tear each other apart."
Knowles said he watched last year's mayoral campaign and felt a kinship with many of the things Elia was saying.
"She was talking about bringing people together," he said. "The kind of work that I do enables that to happen if people want it. Finally, I called her up, and she and I began to talk, and within five minutes we knew we had connected."
Elia said that as she was putting her administrative team together, she knew the city budget had no money for consultants. But after talking with Knowles for five minutes, she said she "realized our philosophies were in harmony."
So far, Knowles has worked for free. Someday the two might discuss money, he said, but have not done so to date. Other clients pay him "nicely," he said. And if down the road other municipalities want to engage his help, they will pay, he said. So far, he said he has had one preliminary meeting with officials in North Tonawanda to help that municipality in a similar way.
Elia, who claims behavioral sciences as part of her varied background, said Knowles' process isn't entirely new, but she liked the "variables" -- what she called looking at things in different ways. She said it made sense to her, and she agreed to try it.
The first trial was with her transition team.
"They liked it, and we disagreed a lot. But we disagreed in an agreeable way," she said.
Elia said Knowles believes in "respect, caring and the idea that if you only concentrate on your differences, you never get ahead. More is achieved through commonality."
To some, Knowles' system might appear somewhat "touchy-feely." But, he said, it can translate into dollars and cents.
The command-and-control process, he contends, wastes a tremendous amount of money -- in the city's case, through fighting and lawsuits, which were prevalent in the previous administration. Removing the "us against them" polarities from the democratic process allows people to accomplish more, he said.
"We can save a whole lot of money because we're not fighting constantly, and productivity goes up," Knowles said. "We don't need to raise taxes and cut people. We need to get out of the old habits we're in. If we can sit together and stay in the process, which involves time and some tension, every time a better answer comes. You've got to go in with an openness to possibilities, but not with an answer. I call that reconciliation, which is a higher goal than compromise."
"We set the world up in win-lose terms all the time that's so counterproductive to us," he said. "Some people say, 'We don't have time. We've got a lot of business to do.' But once we begin to do it, things go so much faster. Suppose we take a little more time up front so we all become clear on the purpose, etc. The resulting outcome takes a lot less time. That's what I call being effective rather than efficient."
"Being effective means people sit down and struggle together," he added. "That doesn't mean we have to always agree. I think a lot of people do this intuitively. What I'm doing is giving them a language and a model."
Knowles likens his system to what happens in an emergency. The goal becomes very clear, and people respond instinctively. They form a team against the common enemy and pull together without waiting for commands from the top.
"In a crisis, that top layer gets peeled off because there's not time to wait for people at the top to tell you what to do," he said. "In a crisis, it becomes very clear what the problem is and what we've got to do to get out of the hole. People then begin to rise to the challenge of what we have to do. We put down the arguments and differences we have because the situation is so compelling."
"We've got to get heat to people's homes or save lives. Under these situations, people self-organize naturally. People feel as though they've made a difference. People are looking to make a difference. After the crisis things get back to normal, and that old command-and-control system gets back into place. What we're trying to do here is to peel off the layer of that command-and-control level and move deeper into living system organization. If we can peel off that upper layer, we can let the natural systems run."
Elia described Knowles' role in city government as "just to stimulate thought processes." Right now, she said, she is focusing on what she sees as a deeply entrenched practice in some departments of paying unnecessary overtime costs. Those issues, therefore, come up in her conversations with department heads and Knowles.