Can Wellesley Be More Like A Corporation?

There has been much talk recently about a proposal to install a Town Manager with authority to combine budgets, hire and fire, and create efficiency.  If there is one justification that is heard more often than efficiency (which I doubt), it is that the Town of Wellesley should be run more ‘like a corporation’.

When I first heard this my ears perked up.  As an employee or management consultant, I have worked for decades inside a large number of corporations including Hewlett-Packard, Computer Sciences Corporation, Lloyds Bank, Tyco International, British Aerospace, Ingersoll-Rand, and some of the largest pharmaceutical and insurance companies in the world. These corporations were certainly focused on both growth and efficiency. I helped them work out how to: combine a dozen European service centers into one; split a public company into three (twice); identify, certify, vet and train 40,000 global distributors; create leadership teams; and create new and streamlined organizations. I also worked with companies with a few hundred employees, or only a few dozen affected by our changes. Through all these years I learned a lot about how organizational structure makes a difference; how to write rules and chains of delegation; how to streamline decision making and improve creativity; how to map ‘workflow’ and write processes that would eliminate waste; how to introduce and manage change; and more. In short I learned about corporate efficiency.

My work has also covered not-for-profits: from a retirement community in Milwaukee managing the care of residents in different stages of later life, to the WHO for the Americas (PAHO), where I worked with the Director and her leadership team to establish a five-year vision, strategy and plan for the organization. (When you have 44 countries represented ‘office politics’ becomes a *real* challenge!). In non-profits there is, of course, no profit motive. There is income and expenditure, and managing both of these is critical, but the point is to save and improve lives, to deliver the best services. Without the ‘North Star’ of profit, balancing equities and prioritizing activity takes on completely new dimensions. Do we save one life today, or 5 next year? Do we focus on raising money so we can save more later? Is one life worth more than another? It is hard to make these decisions, and even harder to measure success, because it doesn’t come back at the end of each quarter in a simple set of numbers. Efficiency is important, but it isn’t always the most important thing when morals and values are on the line.

Outside of work I have been involved with our Town, as a volunteer and collaborator on many SEC projects, as President of Sustainable Wellesley, as a resident, and as parent of two students going from Kindergarten to the High School and playing sports, attending Scouts, etc. The Town of Wellesley has no profit motive. A Town is not here to make money from its Residents, or to charge them as little as humanly possible. A Town does not have a priority boarding lane, or pay stockholders dividends. A Town does not compete for Residents on price, or offer Black Friday sales. A Town serves its Residents in the ways that they wish to be served. A Town IS its Residents.

Our Town should be efficient and not waste our taxes. We could spend less with fewer teachers, fewer firemen, less open space, fewer rules and regulations, looser requirements on noise, pollution, and building, un-maintained roads, less restriction on the type and number of businesses that operate here, and with taxes that target other people (as long as it’s not me and my house/ family/ activities/ business/ school/ services). We could be more efficient with fewer lines of responsibility, fewer decision makers, less time spent in debate, less public input, unified budgets, and with just one place for the buck to stop. I know how to make all of those things happen. And I don’t believe we should.

We have a Town that is beautiful and to be cherished. It is green, tree-lined, interesting and walkable. It is free of big-box retailers and the poisoning of school grounds with pesticides. It is fantastically well serviced with schools, facilities, utilities, police, houses of worship, groups, clubs, and other services. We drink our own water from wells, and produce some of the most accomplished students in the country. We are a Town that others emulate, and want to join.  Wellesley did not get like this because we were the most efficient. We did not get like this despite how we run things. We got like this because of how we run things.

There is nothing wrong with efficiency. A Town Manager may be more efficient, and also conserve Wellesley’s unique character, value, and values. But a Town Manager won’t succeed by pretending we’re a business. We are not a business, we are a Town with Residents. And a Town is not a corporation.

Quentin Prideaux
President, Sustainable Wellesley