The Question Governments Need to Ask: How Are We Doing?

There is a range of customer-feedback tools, including very simple ones.

Ed Koch was the brusque, feisty, confident mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. He loved engaging people, and whenever he walked the city’s streets or gave a speech he asked his signature question: “How’m I doing?” People were taken by his openness and chutzpah, and loved to tell him what they thought.

Back then, Koch was almost unique in continually asking how he — and by extension, the city government he led — was doing. Today, of course, we’re bombarded by hotels, car-rental companies, online retailers and others that pester us for feedback on the services they provide. Governments are also getting into the feedback game, and it’s a smart thing to do. Governments ought to focus on customer service just as much as hotels and car-rental companies do. But how do you find how your agency is doing?

The usual answers include surveys, focus groups, individual interviews with key stakeholders, program participation numbers, and number and types of complaints received. All have strengths and limitations. Surveys are the most efficient way to capture large numbers of responses … if people fill them out. They may tell us where to look, but they lack depth. Focus groups, on the other hand, allow us to probe deeply for the reasons why small numbers of customers do or don’t like a particular service. The number of people attending a class or requesting a service is important for management purposes, but the numbers alone don’t reveal the reasons behind an increase or decrease — quality? cost? convenience? competition?

Tracking complaints (as well as praise) is important, as long as the results are understood in context. One federal survey found, for example, that people share their experiences of poor service with seven other people on average, while they share their good service experiences with only three others. And certain agencies are going to get higher customer scores than others simply because of their missions: The tax department’s scores are never going to rival the library’s. Managers who don’t understand that will create fear among staff rather than an openness to examining the data.

What to do? Here are a few tips:

• Use customer feedback to continually improve service, not as a punitive tool.

• Ask program managers what kind of customer-satisfaction data would be useful for them as management tools. They’ll be motivated to use such data.

• Use more than one method. Surveys can be helpful if accompanied by individual or group interviews.

• Keep surveys very short (four or five questions, max, for most purposes), in order to increase the response rate. You can use longer surveys with certain customer groups that are motivated to complete them, such as those who have registered complaints.

• Publicize changes you’ve made that were the result of customer feedback. Doing so can increase your response rate.

• Pay attention to trend lines. If a new permitting system is developed, track customer satisfaction in the months before and after implementation.

Surveys and focus groups certainly have their place, but so do simpler, automated customer-feedback tools. One that’s gaining a lot of attention is the HappyOrNot system, which offers a simple way to get real-time feedback from large numbers of customers. HappyOrNot uses terminals with four “smiley face” buttons — signifying very happy, somewhat happy, somewhat unhappy or very unhappy. Customers simply push the button that reflects their experience. The data are fed wirelessly to a web-based collection and reporting system. Responses are date- and time-stamped, allowing managers to monitor trends by time and location. People who would never fill out a 15-item questionnaire are willing to pause, touch one of the buttons and go on their way.

Thousands of businesses are using this system in countries around the world, and it’s beginning to catch on in government, where a number of U.S. hospitals, airports, and passport and Social Security offices, along with some cities and counties, have installed HappyOrNot terminals. Riverside, Calif., has used the system since 2015, when its city council identified enhanced customer service as its top priority. There are HappyOrNot terminals at 11 city departments, as well as on the city’s website (go to http://www.riversideca.gov and wait about 15 seconds for the smiley and frowny faces to appear). The city is also using HappyOrNot terminals to monitor employee morale, a creative way to keep a finger on the pulse of the workforce.

You can create your own version of the happy-face product. It works because it’s easy to understand, takes just a few seconds to use, is available immediately after service is provided, and provides location and time-specific information about the feedback. When managers receive ongoing customer feedback data and dig beneath the numbers to learn what they mean, they can make much better decisions.

Ed Koch died in 2013, so we’ll never know what he might have thought of something like HappyOrNot, but it’s reasonable to speculate that he might have liked the idea. How easy is it for your customers to answer the question, “How are we doing?”

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Giving Public Employees the Power to Use Their Judgment

There are risks, and there still must be accountability. But some leaders have shown the way.

As a public official, how can you empower the members of your staff to use their judgment and creativity and still maintain accountability? That’s a classic management issue, and there’s no one solution. But we can learn from leaders who have handled this well.

On Friday, Sept. 9, 2005, a few days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Admiral Thad Allen of the Coast Guard was appointed the principal federal official in charge. He said he was mortified by the scope of the destruction and amazed that thousands of first responders were wandering around, trying to be helpful but with no guidance.

Allen recounted how he dealt with that situation: He called an all-hands meeting. Some 2,500 people attended. He got up on a desk, explained his role and then said, “You need to listen to me — this is an order. You’re to treat everybody that you come in contact with that’s been impacted by this storm as if they were a member of your family — your mother, your father, your brother, your sister. … And if you do that, two things will happen: Number one, if you make a mistake, you will probably err on the side of doing too much. And number two, if anybody has a problem with what you did, their problem’s with me, not you.”

Some people gasped, Allen said. Some started to weep. There was a great feeling of relief, “because nobody had told them what was important, what was valued, what their roles should be, and that their boss was behind them,” he reflected.

It was a classic example of empowerment. These valiant first responders who’d been so humiliated in the press finally understood how to carry out their roles and that their leader had their backs.

Here’s a second example, one that’s far less dramatic and can be applied to everyday operations as well as emergencies:

When the Phoenix police department started to develop its community policing program in the 1990s, an assistant police chief found a simple way to empower the officers, to make it easy for them to go out of their way to help people, without having to run it up several management levels. He gave officers business cards. One side listed these five questions:

  • Is it right for the community?
  • Is it right for the department?
  • Is it ethical and legal?
  • Is it consistent with our values and policies?
  • Is it something I’m willing to be accountable for?

And on the flip side was the following:

If the answers to these questions are “YES,” don’t ask permission. JUST DO IT!

Community policing is about fostering trust and relationships. It requires officers to use their judgment rather than being rigidly rule-oriented. And if you want people to use judgment and still be accountable, you need to give them some clear guidance.

That’s what the card accomplishes. Suppose you’re a Phoenix officer patrolling in your squad car. You see an older lady walking slowly with some bags of groceries. Looks like she could use a lift. But you’re not supposed to allow someone like her to ride in the squad car. It violates the rules; you could get in trouble. With the new card, however, it’s a no-brainer. Of course you’d give her a ride. It helps her, and it shows her (and others) that you have a heart. And if your superior questions you, you can explain that you had checked off of the questions on the card.

The same five questions can help officers in high-risk situations, such as when they’re in hot pursuit of a suspect. Sometimes these situations call for an aggressive response; in others, de-escalation may be the better route. These are judgment calls, and reflecting on the five questions both gives officers support and holds them accountable.

If you try this approach with your own staff, how will you respond when (inevitably) mistakes occur? Yes, there are risks here. They can be minimized if you invest time in communicating with your staff about the questions or guiding principles and discussing “what-if” scenarios. Make such discussions a regular part of your staff meetings. Over time, staff will learn how far is too far and when to ask for help.

What about you? If you were to give your staff a few questions or guiding principles to empower them without losing accountability, what would they be?

Avoiding Another Charlottesville

There is plenty that local officials can do to avert the kind of deadly violence that erupted in the Virginia city.

When chaos broke out during protests in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, many Americans wondered why police seemed to be standing back. Despite intelligence that neo-Nazis and other white-nationalist extremists planned to come to Charlottesville heavily armed and expecting violence, the city’s law-enforcement response was widely seen as inadequate.

Before the day was over, one Charlottesville resident had been killed and more than 20 people had been injured when an extremist drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. How, many wondered, could that have happened with almost a thousand city and state police deployed to maintain public order?

Stunned by the events that had unfolded in a usually quiet university town, local law-enforcement and political leaders across the country began serious efforts to “avoid another Charlottesville” should demonstrators bent on violence come to their communities. How can localities prepare for demonstrations that pose a clear threat to safety? Fortunately, there is a wealth of emergency management expertise to draw on:

Before the event:

• Gather intelligence on the demonstrators and their leaders. Tom Martin, a retired Virginia State Police captain and the state’s point person for several emergencies, puts it this way: “You have to learn who are these people are. What’s their track record? How reliable are they?”
• Communicate with the groups’ leaders, clarifying expectations. “One of the most significant things you can do when you have two kinds of volatile groups is to meet with them beforehand and establish strong lines of communications. You want to establish the rules of engagement,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
• Seek assistance from the state’s fusion center (an information-sharing entity staffed by intelligence and law-enforcement professionals). Fusion center staff can monitor the protest groups and tell local and state officials about their plans and their expected numbers.
• Based on the information gathered, develop a plan. It must include clear goals, a set of contingencies and a variety of possible law-enforcement responses. “It might be to contain and arrest, to prevent violence or to disperse crowds,” says Martin. Determine what streets will be closed, where counter-demonstrations can take place, and what areas residents should avoid.
• Keep local elected leaders in the communications loop with public-safety officials. Bill Leighty, a nationally recognized crisis-management expert, emphasizes the importance of forming relationships prior to the event: “You don’t want to be handing out business cards in the emergency operations center!” And invite crisis-management experts to advise law enforcement and political leaders. When things don’t go according to plan, it’s wise to have experienced people on hand.
• Create a unified command structure, with one person in charge. Typically, this will be the local police or fire chief. That person should maintain continual communications with law enforcement and political leaders.
• Engage state and local police in joint training. When violence is possible, the training must include the methods for dealing with it, from de-escalation to dispersing crowds and making arrests. Joint training builds trust among the agencies.
• Create extra response capacity. The governor can place the National Guard on standby. Local hospitals can postpone elective surgeries.

During the event:

There is no one formula for responding to events that become chaotic. But a few principles are clear:

• Establish one command post, where all information is integrated, viewed, discussed and disseminated to local and state leaders.
• Vet the information before acting on it. Initial information is often inaccurate. That’s what happened prior to riots in Virginia Beach in 1989. “The governor was told that a bunch of drunkards and drug addicts were coming,” Leighty recalls. “And that’s what law enforcement was expecting. Turned out it was a group of college kids looking for a good time.” Things nearly came to bloodshed at Virginia Beach because law-enforcement leaders were prepared to act on false information. Leighty concludes, “I always say, ‘if you’re planning for a riot, you’ll get a riot.'”
• Designate who will communicate to the community and media. That may be an elected official, a city manager or other top-level administrator, or the police chief. If the task is shared, there must be one consistent message, telling residents what’s known, dispelling false rumors and giving people the information they need to remain safe.
• Station significant numbers of police between hostile groups. Otherwise you’re asking for just the kind of trouble that Charlottesville experienced; there, city officials reported, demonstrators didn’t enter the park they had agreed to use, preventing police from creating a barrier between the two groups. And organize for maximum flexibility. For instance, if police don’t want to increase tensions by stationing officers in riot gear at a demonstration, ensure that those who are in riot gear can get to the site very quickly.

After the event:

When hostile groups collide, mistakes are likely. Blame doesn’t help, but a thorough and objective after-action review does. It’s essential to take a clear-eyed look at what happened: Did we follow the plan? Did we change tactics as events required? How well did we maintain communications? What are the key lessons learned?

There are no perfect examples of emergency management when hostile groups threaten violence. But when government leaders use these principles, most people will forgive them when the inevitable mistakes occur.

The Agility That Governments Need for a Disruptive Age

Public-sector organizations aren’t designed for it, but some are finding ways to make it part of their culture.

It’s no secret that the environment affecting public and private organizations is becoming extraordinarily turbulent. Change is not only occurring more quickly, it’s also increasingly unpredictable and disruptive. And most organizations aren’t designed to adapt quickly and intelligently.

When large corporations don’t see disruptive change coming, it can be devastating for their bottom line (consider the Big 3 automakers and the challenges posed by foreign competition). In other cases, it can threaten the very existence of companies with long, proud histories. Kodak’s downfall was precipitated by its difficulty in transitioning to digital technology. (Ironically, It was a Kodak engineer who created the first digital camera in 1975. Management’s reaction was, “That’s cute — but don’t tell anyone about it!” In 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy.)

For public agencies that don’t have the agility to adapt to major change, the implications are different. They’re more likely to lose reputation, credibility and relationships with key stakeholders. In the 1980s and ’90s, public schools, social services and public-housing agencies were slow to respond to the public’s frustration with programs perceived as ineffective. One of the results: major changes mandated by elected officials, some of which (such as the federal No Child Left Behind education law) seemed to create more problems than they solved.

It’s no surprise that public agencies are often slow to adapt. That’s what our Constitution’s framers wanted. Their overriding goal was to avoid the tyranny of another king. Checks and balances, and the division of power between the federal and state governments, became primary tools for achieving that goal. In that sense, their system has been a brilliant success. But it came at a great cost. Today, we’re chasing fast-moving 21st-century problems using snail’s-pace 18th-century models.

Here’s the good news: A number of public agencies are finding creative ways to become more agile in the face of disruptive change. Here are four approaches:

1. Dedicated units that identify emerging challenges and develop innovative responses: One example is a “bimodal information-technology organization,” which combines two IT units with very different objectives and cultures. The Mode 1 unit is focused on efficiency and stability; it manages ongoing IT operations. The (much smaller) Mode 2 unit deals with innovation and change; it develops creative approaches to emerging problems and helps the Mode 1 staff learn how to implement those approaches. Boston’s celebrated and widely replicated Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has been a pathbreaking Mode 2 unit. And the spread of dedicated innovation units and data-analysis teams in recent years has brought new agility to city governments.

2. The use of crowdsourcing to quickly find creative solutions to emerging issues: In 2011, the city of Mesa, Ariz., created “iMesa,” a crowdsourcing platform to engage its residents in their local government and its services. In the five years after iMesa’s launch, more than 400 ideas were submitted and 46 were selected and implemented, including two urban community gardens, a downtown “hacker space,” a collaborative workspace called “Thinkspot” and a new 140-acre park. (The iMesa platform is currently offline, with “iMesa 2.0” in the works.) At the federal level, Challenge.gov leverages crowdsourcing by enabling agencies to describe technical, scientific and other problems and allowing anyone (in government or out) to propose solutions. Agencies give cash prizes to competition winners.

3. Collaborative networks and task forces that join organizations with similar missions: These efforts create their own identity and often can respond creatively and quickly to sudden opportunities — or threats. Joint terrorism task forces, for example, pool the skills and knowledge of law-enforcement and intelligence personnel from all three levels of government. They develop the trust needed to share information and work as one team, responding quickly to break up terrorist cells and prevent attacks.

4. An agile culture across an entire organization: When Bill Leighty took over the Virginia Retirement System in 1995, it was badly in need of a transformation. It had silos within silos. The mantra was, “This is how we do things, we can’t change.” Leighty’s initiatives included a “dumb rules” contest (to identify and eliminate those that made no sense); cross-functional teams empowered to implement major process changes; employee road trips to learn what key stakeholders needed; and a leadership team that employed “managing by wandering around.” These steps created a vibrant and agile culture in the agency, one that continues to adapt to change today.

The first three of these approaches are much easier to implement; they don’t disrupt an organization’s culture. The fourth — making the entire organization more agile — is far harder. It requires changes in how people are hired, trained and evaluated; new skillsets and attitudes; the ability to sense emerging changes; and a special kind of leadership. What approach will you and your colleagues take to develop the agility needed for these disruptive times?

Sexual Wrongdoing in the Government Workplace: the Leadership Challenge

Despite all the media coverage, assault and harassment remain too common. There’s a lot that public leaders could be doing.

We’ve seen more than enough sexual assault and harassment cases that were ignored for years or even decades. The Catholic Church scandal. Penn State and, more recently, Baylor University. The National Football League. The military service military academies and the Coast Guard. Some local government fire and police agencies. And that’s just a starter list.
At the National Park Service, complaints of sexual harassment and assault go back over 20 years. In one survey, 75 percent of female park police said they had experienced sexual harassment on the job.

The law on this subject is clear. Sexual assault is a crime. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as many state and local laws, prohibit both sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that employers are strictly liable for sexual harassment committed by supervisors if the employee suffers a tangible job detriment.

Given that the law is clear and that the media continue to report on sexual assault scandals, why does this ugly problem persist? Why do so many public-sector leaders seem unable or unwilling to take strong steps when serious allegations are made? And what can be done to turn the situation around?

There are a number of reasons for inaction. A 2014 survey of female firefighters provides some clues. Seventy percent of the survey respondents said they did not report their attacks. The reasons they gave — and some gave more than one — are familiar: emotional trauma and feelings of shame; a belief that their reports wouldn’t be taken seriously; fears of physical reprisal from attackers; and worry that they would lose their jobs.
In other words, fear is a major factor. But there are several others. Interviews with sexual assault victims in government agencies indicate:

• The internal reporting process is murky and often delayed by supervisors who want to keep incidents quiet.
• Some managers dismiss complaints as “simply a misunderstanding” between the supervisor and staff.
• The victim is often required to repeat her story multiple times to different people, which discourages many from pursuing their complaints.
• A hostile work environment exists, where sexist jokes, pornographic displays and unwanted sexual advances are common and ignored by management.
• Leaders want to protect the agency’s reputation, so they take mild steps such as moving the accused to a different unit.

The last factor is especially troubling. The leader may feel that he or she has acted appropriately, but the message to the staff is clear: You can sexually harass someone and get nothing but a mild tap on the wrist.

What can public managers do to prevent and address this ongoing scourge? Training and education are a good start. Henrico County, Va., for example, designed its own online training program on sexual harassment. All supervisors are required to complete it. The course defines sexual harassment, makes the laws on the subject clear and outlines the county’s procedures for handling claims of harassment.

Henrico’s approach emphasizes the importance of setting clear expectations for behaviors. Supervisors can’t complete the course until they get a grade of 100 on the final test. That’s unusual for government training programs, and it’s impressive. Many of the county’s supervisors have praised the training; several have gone through it with their staff members. And, in addition to supervisory training, all of Henrico’s new employees must watch and discuss “Let’s Get Honest,” a creative video about sexual harassment (it’s commercially available).

Another useful informational resource is the International City/County Management Association’s Effective Supervisory Practices: Better Results through Teamwork. Chapter 14 of the book, entitled “Ensuring a harassment-free and respectful workplace,” offers tips on, among other things, writing a harassment policy, responding to complaints, intervening effectively and protecting complainants from retaliation.

Unfortunately, however, information and training aren’t enough. They are helpful to those who want to do the right thing, but the best training program won’t change a hostile work environment or deter sexual predators. What’s needed is strong leadership — not just one leader, but a leadership team that is committed to creating a work culture that values and respects everyone.

Such teams are effective when they make clear that they have zero tolerance for any form of harassment and when they talk with genuine conviction about the importance of a culture built on respect. They should do so at new employee onboarding programs, at retreats with work units, at all-hands meetings. And leadership teams can help create respectful work cultures when they honor supervisors who take strong action against those who harass others.

They also make a difference when they ask groups of middle managers and supervisors what specific steps they’re taking to foster mutual respect — and hold them accountable for making respect a priority. When senior managers ask the same questions of their reports, over and over, people usually realize what their bosses want and care about, and follow suit. And leaders’ efforts gain credibility when they institute 360-degree reviews of managers and supervisors that include pointed questions about exactly what managers are doing to foster respect in their work units.

These kinds of actions will create healthier workplaces. They will help attract talented millennials who won’t put up with any sort of harassment at work. And they will make people proud of their organizations and their leaders.

When Performance Measures Go Horribly Wrong

They have a powerful influence. But unrealistic, unreachable goals can produce unethical behavior.

After the scandal erupted over the creation by Wells Fargo employees of more than 2 million bogus bank accounts, for which customers were charged over $2.5 million in unwarranted fees, the bank’s CEO claimed that it never wanted the accounts created, that it had fired 5,300 employees who were involved, and that he was “fully committed to … fix the issue and strengthen our culture.”

But here’s the problem: What happened at Wells Fargo wasn’t about culture. Nor was it about unethical employees, or about one senior executive who oversaw the program that led to these abuses (and walked away with an exit package worth over $100 million). No, this was a case of super-aggressive daily sales goals that were almost impossible to reach and where failure to reach them could lead to firings. As one expert on white-collar crime asserted, “This wouldn’t have happened without pressure from the top.”

We’ve seen this movie over and over in the public sector. Teachers and administrators in several public school systems have been caught correcting students answers on high-stakes tests, as a reaction to the enormous pressure they felt to improve student performance. In one of the worst cases, in 2011, an investigation found that 178 teachers and administrators in Atlanta’s schools had corrected student responses on standardized tests. Several of them went to jail.

The same kind of unethical behavior occurred on a wide scale at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, again because of high-stakes goals that were virtually impossible to meet. Supervisors directed front-line staff to cook the books to make it appear that all vets received a medical appointment within 14 days of requesting it — the department’s all-important performance measure. The huge number of troops who had been injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made it impossible for the VA to treat all vets so quickly. But there was intense pressure to do so, and that led hundreds of department staff and supervisors to falsify appointment records.

The old saying, “what gets measured gets managed,” is true. Performance measures have a very powerful influence on people’s behaviors. And that raises the key question: How do we know if the measures we use are appropriate? Here’s an example of one person who answered that question in a creative way:

In 1995, an excellent public-sector leader named Bill Leighty was named director of the Virginia Retirement System. He took over a deeply troubled agency. It was in turmoil because of a major scandal, support in the state legislature was almost nonexistent, and employee morale was in the basement. This agency had some of the most rigid silos I’ve ever seen. Leighty knew he had to make major changes quickly to raise morale and performance.

One of his early steps was to create a “dumb rules” contest. He invited employees to identify rules, measures and regulations that were getting in their way and leading them to do stupid things. After reviewing dozens of employee recommendations, Leighty noted that “we found about a third of these were outside our control, a third were rules we had written ourselves, and a third weren’t rules at all!”

By the end of this exercise, the agency staff had been relieved of rules and performance measures that wasted their time and, even worse, led to behaviors that lowered performance and customer service. And Leighty actively involved the employees whenever they developed new measures to ensure that those measures were meaningful and had no unintended consequences.

So when you look at your organization’s performance measures, ask yourself and your team a few simple questions:

• Which of these measures provide staff with operational information that’s truly useful?
• Which of them simply waste people’s time?
• Which ones promote collaboration and information sharing among staff?
• Which lead to unanticipated consequences that are harmful to customers?
• And perhaps most important, are the measures achievable? Do they focus on factors that staff can actually control?

Albert Einstein once said that “not everything that counts is countable, and not everything that’s countable counts.” Do your organization’s performance measures count?

The Difficult Art of Responding to Public Criticism

When accusations are flying or scandal erupts, it’s crucial to get the initial response right.

How do you respond when your agency or jurisdiction is called out for poor performance, terrible customer service or even scandal? When the charges are false, how do you correct the record without appearing defensive? When there’s some truth to the allegations, how do you regain public trust (and fix the problem)? This is far more art than science, but one thing is for certain: Nothing is more important than your initial response.

First, some tips on how not to respond. Don’t blame the messenger, minimize the problem or circle the wagons. That only raises suspicions. At the same time, it’s important not to accept the criticism at face value; you need time to investigate what happened. If there is some truth to the allegations, you’ll need to address the problem and recover from the bad press. Don’t make matters worse by issuing initial responses you’ll need to correct later.

And it usually doesn’t help to fire (or transfer to bureaucratic Siberia) a staff member who had major responsibility for the problem, although there’s often great pressure to do so.

The University of Virginia experienced some high-profile events in recent years that raised doubts about the prestigious public university’s truthfulness and priorities. UVa’s initial responses during two of these events offer guidance in both how and how not to respond to public criticism.

In July 2016, a former member of the UVa Board of Visitors, its governing body, claimed that the university had created a secret $2.3 billion “slush fund” to support “pet projects” and to improve its reputation. That’s serious money for any university. That amount, plus the board member’s terminology — “slush fund,” “pet projects” — ensured that her accusation would receive wide media attention.

UVa leaders didn’t apologize or get defensive. Within days, the UVa rector (the chair of the Board of Visitors) issued a statement noting that the fund in question had been approved by the board in a public meeting five months earlier. He explained the fund’s purpose and said the board had discussed it several times since 2014. He added that UVa officials would soon provide details outlining the sources and goals of the fund.

Just six days later, that detailed information was released. A UVa official explained that the fund would be used to minimize tuition increases, increase the financial aid program, hire new faculty and provide research money without straining operating funds. The university also posted a Q&A page on its website responding to questions being raised in the media.

A state legislator then charged that the decisions about the fund had been “all done in closed-session meetings.” Another stated that UVA has run “a covert surplus” for years, and announced an investigation.

A few days later, the UVa chief operating officer provided further records documenting specific public meetings held over the past two years at which its board discussed the fund, adding, “We have absolutely nothing to hide.” He also pointed out that the investment fund was included on the university’s balance sheet and audited annually by the state auditor.

The university’s leaders handled the initial response-to-criticism phase well. They:

• Acknowledged the criticism promptly, without going into details they had to put together.
• Took the issue seriously and didn’t minimize it.
• Provided a detailed, point-by-point response to each criticism in a timely fashion.
• Didn’t become defensive or blame the messenger.

Some of UVa’s leaders probably did want to castigate the messenger. She was the same person who, as rector four years earlier, had created widespread outrage when she convinced the Board of Visitors to fire the university’s popular president, only to “unfire” the president two weeks later following withering criticism.

UVa’s response to the “slush fund” allegation stands in marked contrast to its response to a devastating article in Rolling Stone magazine published in 2014. That article, since discredited and retracted, detailed an alleged gang-rape of a student who said that UVa officials responded passively when she reported the incident.

In that event, the president said that the university “takes seriously the issue of sexual misconduct.” Then she left for an overseas conference. That led to outrage; she had called an alleged gang-rape “sexual misconduct” and then left town? After a law firm was hired to look into the rape allegations, university officials refused for over a month to say whether the report to be issued by the law firm would be made public. Fortunately, UVa leaders regained their footing and soon started to take aggressive steps to deal with sexual assault.

Your initial response to public criticism poses significant challenges: You need to say something, but may not have enough facts to make a definitive statement immediately. Your superiors and staff will expect you to support them and the agency, even if the information you have suggests serious wrongdoing is possible or likely (consider a police chief’s dilemma when a video shows a white cop shooting an unarmed black man). You may face pressure to find a scapegoat as a way to calm the public and make it appear the problem is “solved.”

If you have a reputation for openness, honesty, and high standards, most people will be patient while you find out what’s going on … if your initial response is appropriate. Credibility is everything in this business. Be sure to maintain yours when responding to public criticism.