By Steve Kelman
Monterrey, Mexico, has a reputation for drug-related violent crime, but also an active nighttime social scene, reports Steve Kelman. (Photo: Wikipedia
Except for a half-day in Tijuana (which was part of a visit to San Diego) and a week in Cancun – neither of which really counts as spending time there -- I have never truly visited Mexico. However, I agreed recently to serve as faculty chair for an executive education program at the Harvard Kennedy School for senior Mexican career government employees.
The deciding factor, although I speak no Spanish and know little about the country, was that it would give me the opportunity to understand better this important country so close to and so closely linked (through trade and immigration) to the United States. I’ve been busily reading books about Mexico for the last six weeks, and now I have come for a brief visit, to talk with some local experts and take in a little of a feel for the country.
In my next post, I will write a bit more seriously about what I’m learning. In this one, I will give some more immediate surface impressions, with special emphasis on the security situation in the wake of the Mexican government’s aggressive anti-drug wars, whose brutal results, in terms of shootouts, innocent people caught in crossfire, and gruesome violence have gotten a lot of attention in the US.
The first thing to note is that I have never seen a place with so many police on the street as Mexico City. They swarm everywhere. (There are some soldiers on the street as well; one afternoon, on returning to my hotel, there were two soldiers with submachine guns just outside the door.) Mexico City is particularly rich in federal police – Mexico has both local and federal police forces – who are generally regarded as better trained and less corrupt than the local officers. There are also private security guards outside of many stores – and not just the fancy branded stores such as Louis Vuitton -- and many restaurants.
The police presence seems to be producing results. My thought before I came was absolutely to stay off the streets after dark. But both Mexican contacts and personnel at my hotel (who probably have an incentive to be cautious) told me there was no problem walking to and from my hotel, in an upper-middle class area of the city called Polanco, to restaurants nearby. And indeed, when I ventured outside for dinner, I saw a significant number of single women on the streets, which to me is a sign that things are pretty safe.
After Mexico City I went to Monterrey (Mexicans told me that this is the correct Spanish spelling and that “Monterey,” the name of our California city, is spelled incorrectly). This city, two hours by car from Texas in northern Mexico and one of the centers of Mexican industry and foreign manufacturing investment, has been one of the major locales of gun battles between drug cartels fighting for turf in an environment where the government crackdown had made it harder to earn money. Here, people did tell me under no circumstances to hail a taxi on the street, but instead to use only taxi companies vetted by local hotels.
People also told me they had changed their lives in response to the violence. They don’t go outside late at night (though one father told me parents had a difficult time imposing such restrictions on their teenage children). People have hesitated about driving fancy cars, which can make them the targets of car theft or kidnapping; one person told me many people did not wash their cars so they would appear less attractive to thieves or kidnappers. Nonetheless, when returning to my hotel – in an authorized taxi! – at about 8 p.m. (early by Mexican standards to be sure, but well after dark), I saw lively street activity downtown, with lots of people lounging around on the streets.
Finally, I noticed something interesting in going through airport security inside Mexico. The security agents who check boarding passes and photo ID’s are all disabled people in wheelchairs. An interesting way to provide very useful employment for people with disabilities. Idea for TSA?
One more thing that was interesting: many signs in Mexico are wishing people “Feliz Fiestas” (Happy Holidays) instead of “Feliz Navidad” (Merry Christmas), particularly noteworthy in a country far less multi-religious than the US and in light of the sometimes ideology-tinged debates on the proper seasonal greeting.
Posted on Dec 14, 2012 at 10:38 AM0 comments
Aliya Sternstein recently wrote an interesting article in GovExec on how some associations with close ties to the government, such as the Air Force Association and the independent U.S. Cyber Challenge (led by former Federal CIO Karen Evans), were setting up various contests and training programs to involve young people in improving skills as cybersecurity defenders. The U.S. Cyber Challenge has both training and a contest whose winners can get scholarships to study cybersecurity. These and other organizations set up “hackathons” where young people compete with one another to defend targets against hacking.
There are obviously some potential concerns — of which the organizers are aware and which the article also discusses — that young people who learn cybersecurity defense through these kinds of programs will use their improved skills to become cyberattackers themselves. (Indeed, two participants in one of the programs were arrested in 2011 for hacking into Sony Pictures Entertainment.)
However, I bring up these efforts not specifically to discuss the cybersecurity context but rather to suggest that they are a model for an innovative way for government — in this case, indirectly — to interact with young people to help with the government’s missions. This kind of interaction also occurs when agencies use contests as a procurement tool because, surprisingly often, those entering these contests are young people who would otherwise have no real way to help agencies solve mission problems.
So I am urging agency managers to think about new ways to harness the energy and enthusiasm of young people to help in government missions, other than the traditional way of having them sign up as civil servants. The missions of government are, of course, so varied that the ideas will need to be tailored to each mission. In general, agencies that are able to accept volunteer services and that have a local presence — the National Park Service comes to mind — are obvious candidates for organizing volunteer activities for young people. But the specifics are not something that can be generated by the author of a blog post (though suggestions in the form of blog comments are welcome). They are ideas smart agency managers should develop.
There are at least two obvious benefits. The first is giving agencies new ideas and new energy from this kind of participation. The second is tying a new generation of Americans more closely to the government that serves them.
Posted on Dec 11, 2012 at 12:45 PM0 comments
The media serves an important role in government oversight, argues Steve Kelman.
Last weekend in Washington, I went with my wife and some friends to see Lincoln. The Saturday night scene at the AMC theater near Mazza Galleria was total chaos. There were several lines weaving in and out of each other, with no clear indication (such as ropes or signs) of which line was for picking up pre-purchased tickets, which for buying new tickets, and which for entering the cinema. No employee was visible to organize any of these lines or explain what was going on. There was no demarcation between the ticket/entry lines and the place for people leaving a show to exit through the lobby, so departing customers (of whom there were a significant number) had to somehow break through the various ticket customer lines.
During the chaos, one member of our party commented, “If this were government, it would be a news story.” The point was that glitches or bad performance in government is the stuff of scandal and media attention, while similar problems in the private sector may get little attention at all.
I reflected on this statement afterwards.(Actually, I told our group that I planned to blog on it immediately after the statement was made.) Here’s what I think:
The person who wants government folks to stop complaining about media coverage might note that in many ways the media (along with congressional oversight) performs a disciplining function for government that is analogous to that performed for private companies by the marketplace. It is certainly not the case that agencies are subject to strict oversight while companies get off scot-free, just because the media are more aggressive in covering government than companies – indeed, of course, many outside government complain that there is little “accountability” in government compared with business because government folks are seldom fired or go bankrupt, unlike the situation in business. In some sense, the media (along with congressional overseers and Inspectors General) act as substitutes for the marketplace as a source of discipline and control for government.
But there is a difference between media/congressional/IG oversight and marketplace oversight that does create problems for government. A crucial feature of marketplace oversight is that, while it does punish failure or incompetence, it also richly rewards performance and achievements. Some companies do go bankrupt, but others flourish. Marketplace oversight thus balances risk and reward.
However, for a whole bunch of reasons (that ultimately in some sense have to do with what citizens or politicians like to hear), the kind of oversight to which government is subject is much more focused only on criticizing the problems rather than cherishing the performers. The government equivalent of the cinema chaos does indeed get media attention, but the government equivalent of a solidly well-performing company (say a Proctor & Gamble or Wells Fargo bank) passes unnoticed, dismissed as the dog that didn’t bark.
This in turn has consequences for the way government is managed and for government performance. Government is often much more oriented towards avoiding scandals as opposed to achieving results. That is not a good thing. In movie theaters faced a similar set of incentives, the lines would probably be less chaotic, but the movies probably wouldn’t be as good.
Posted on Dec 06, 2012 at 7:45 AM3 comments