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System Delays and How to Manage Them as Public Leaders

In today’s fast paced world consumers are not used to delays, although many disruptions during the pandemic have caused all of us to expect and prepare for delays. The US government systems were designed for stability of service but with our additive approach to legislating, systems have grown in complexity causing delays in services. Leaders who want to protect long term positive relationships with citizens have mastered the skill set to effectively manage expectations during systems delays.

There are multiple types of system delays:  the predictable delays, the preventable delays, and the unpredictable delays. The ability to predict the delay in a system with some accuracy makes it easier for you to build a plan for the delay period. As a leader your ability to manage each one of these delays is critical and can save you and the citizens you serve a tremendous amount of time, stress and lost goodwill.

You can manage in all these delays if you and your team have the skills and practiced responses. System delays should never be a time of silence but rather a time of structured communication, updates and alternative action.   A strategic plan for progress updates should be developed for all system delays. This keeps people informed and calm. During the week following the Boston Marathon Bombings the Governor of MA and Mayor had two video conferences a day to keep the citizens up to date and informed. Many Governors and Mayors used this strategy successfully during the recent pandemic.

Predictable Delays

The delays in routine systems are often predictable and easy to communicate. An example would be the average length of time to fill an executive level vacancy. This is where experienced professionals can be of great service. In these cases, you can develop a plan to communicate the estimated delay time upfront and update those who are dependent on the service infrequently if you are on track or when there is a change in the delay time. Great goodwill comes when these routine delays are shortened due to innovation and technology.

Preventable Delays

Preventable Delays are generally the result of:

  • poor planning, 
  • lack of analysis and scenarios,
  • unheeded predictions from credible sources
  • inaccurate information
  • countries or people who withhold or manipulate information
  • unanticipated unintended consequences 

In hindsight predictions about the inadequacy of storm levies in New Orleans by the Army Corps of Engineers, predictions of inadequate personal protective equipment production in the US by vendors, concerns by the Gates Foundation and other Public Health organizations concerning a worldwide pandemic were heard by some but not in a collective way that would avert disaster. These are all easy to see after the fact but not heeding these concerns in each case caused us a good deal of suffering.

Citizens depend on leaders to be preemptive and avoid as much crisis as humanly possible. Working with your employees to do adequate scenario planning, mock practice drills, staying up to date on predictions from credible sources, helping citizens understand the economic value of preemptive prevention, and fact checking your sources are all ways to manage preventable delays.  

There are times when admitting that you do not have the answers but will need to wait till credible data comes in is the best thing you can do. But in every scenario remedial action from the government is expected by citizens.

Unpredictable Delays

When leaders face unpredictable delays particularly in a crisis, regular continuous updates are critical. This allows leaders to update citizens on the latest credible information, it highlights the changes as more data becomes available and helps people protect themselves and their neighbors if the government is unable to.
Governor Gina Raimondo of RI understood early in 2020 the nature of the original virus and held daily updates with helpful tips that gave citizens tools to stay safe. She understood the importance of universal testing, keeping a daily contact diary and wearing a mask even if it was a homemade one.

Unpredictable delays are the worst types of delays particularly when lives are on the line. Transparency, willingness to learn in public, regular communications and creative stop gap measures are your only way to navigate these delays.

An example of system delays which are common when attempts are made to change laws or policies at the federal government level is when the US Government decided to ban the use of the chemical DDT. The delays in the case below can be seen in many other areas, cigarettes, mileage efficiencies in trucks, clean air regulations etc.

  • 1962 Rachel Carson, Fish and Wildlife employee writes her book Silent Spring, documenting the adverse environmental effects caused using pesticides
  • 1963 John Kennedy reads her book and orders review of DDT by Science Advisory Group
  • 1967 Environmental Defense Fund created in response to DDT effects (Department of Agriculture studies were criticized as too narrowly focused)
  • 1967-1972 Environmental Defense fund launches long federal battle
  • 1971-1972 EPA holds hearings on DDT
  • 1972 EPA Administrator bans the use of DDT
  • 1972 Industry Manufacturers of DDT sue EPA
  • 1973 DC District Court rules in favor of EPA
  • 70’-80’s world-wide ban on DDT
  • Currently India and North Korea still use DDT

How we effectively manage these unpredictable delays can have long term health and safety effects on our citizens.

Delays are inherent in today’s world. Great leaders do what they can to prepare for both the predictable and unpredictable delays, and communicate with citizens to keep them informed, build trust, and minimize the health and safety impacts on citizens and communities.