Professionalism and tribal government

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We often joke about the quality and pace of services on the reservation. "What is your rush, don't you know, this is the rez." It is all fun and games until we start complaining about lack of resources and quality of services for the people. It is a fairly acceptable course of action to complain, but if you dare suggest ideas, turfs are drawn and walls are raised. With all the attacks on the Indian Health Services hospitals, they are in many cases (ironically) the only professionally run entity on most reservations.

Some of the new tribal administrations are beginning to address the less-than-quality services within their governments. It is more difficult than one can imagine: quality comes from attitude and vision, and since it is not a tangible commodity (like federal funding), some leaders don't have a point of reference. By setting the goals to increase performance, tribal agencies can find themselves more productive, serving more people with less money and other resources.

The rank-and-file tribal employees are often under-qualified. When you ask the director, the typical response is, "In order to attract more qualified people, we must increase the salary scale." It isn't always the salary; it is the entire job satisfaction. For most professionals, it is a combination of job consistency, fairness, growth, sense of value, respect, teamwork and accomplishment that attracts them and retains them. In fact in some cases, the more you increase the salary, the higher the arrogance factor and less of all desired attributes. It is mostly about leadership and vision, not throwing money at the problem.

Many agencies are dealing with similar issues with their employees:

* Offices suffer from lack of motivated staff. To many, it is just a job, nothing more, often less. There will not be extra effort.

* Frequently, the best interest of the client is the last thing on their mind.

* They are always complaining about the lack of resources, "I can't make a home visit to that desperate client because I don't have a tribal vehicle," or, "I couldn't finish the report last week, I ran out of time before the weekend."

* They can never be reached while out of the office. Even those with cell phones in areas that enjoy coverage keep their phones turned off, yet they would talk on that cell phone while sitting at their desk staring at the landline. Messages are also seldom returned.

* There is no emphasis on customer service such as phone coverage during lunch hour, after hours or often during work hours, not even a voice mail, and it is treated as quite normal.

* There is never a perception of urgency to getting something done.

* It seems that the majority of the time, the majority of the employees are on travel; the standard response when asking to talk to someone is, "they are out on training." As the CEO of a relatively large organization, I can assure you that no one receives as much training as most tribal employees. In fact, no professional agency in the country receives as much training as do these folks, yet they are always complaining about lack of training. I am not talking about just anybody; these are often people with advanced degrees and certifications and years of schooling. With the amount of resources spent, they should be able to train anyone on just about any topic, themselves.

* They will spend the majority of their work hours justifying and rationalizing why they cannot do something.

* Most meetings are held to criticize and complain about each other and not to get anything done. They often result in just setting up the next meeting.

* Meetings are called, however seldom kept. If there is any reason provided for not showing up, it is always, "an emergency came up and he had to go out of town yesterday." There is no attempt to cancel the meeting ahead of the time as if your time was not important.

* Gossip is rampant. Often, it is the only form of communication available.

One of the most popular answers why professionals don't want to work for the tribe is, "It is all about politics and not necessarily the service." Another is that, "There is no consistency and professionalism."

There also seems to be a misnomer among some tribal leadership and that is the confusion regarding stability. The term frequently used in the past decade blurs the line between status quo and reform. Some have decided that if they don't do much and thus make no waves, they are considered as a stable and consistent government. Let us make that clear: Inaction does not mean stability.

Where do we start?

As leaders, we must set our priorities and then get to work:

* Always show up to work 15 minutes before and leave 15 minutes after all of your employees.

* Occasionally, pick up the broom and sweep the floor. Plant a tree outside your office building. Take pride in your work environment.

* Ask your managers for input. Encourage them to participate and take ownership.

* However and whenever possible, cut the red tape and streamline the process.

* Hire the best personnel you possibly can instead of several less paid. Remember that one great leader can out perform several mediocre employees.

* Time is of the essence. Realize that every day you don't have a project up and running, there may be people suffering because of it.

* Instill a progressive, yet realistic and achievable vision. Get the entire team involved, but ultimately it is your command. Just do it.

* Accountability to people means no excuses. Find the way to do it. Be creative and promote creativity.

* Emphasize teamwork. Teamwork simply means that the job needs to get done. We are all responsible so you are not off the hook if someone else drops the ball.

* Tell your staff that they may need occasionally to work after hours to meet a deadline.

* Encourage and mobilize the staff to participate in a remodeling project of the entire office building one Saturday. Get the local businesses to donate all of the tools needed.

* Remind each and every staff why they are in their positions. They are there to serve the people, not the other way around.

* Cut out the numerous holidays. It often seems that we have more holidays than working days. Don't our constituents deserve a working government? Do away with the haphazard attitude about work.

* Build partnerships with other agencies as well as with the private sector.

Why is professionalism important? Just ask yourself that question next time someone dies from a gang-related shooting after we have contemplated development of an interagency task force on the issue for years. Or the next time an elder freezes to death in a dilapidated home while we were discussing the issue of senior care on the rez. Or when rampant unemployment and alcoholism drive a man to shoot his entire family as we were obsessed with putting restrictions on businesses and discouraged them from coming to the reservation and employing hundreds of people. Or when a severely mentally ill relative kills himself due to lack of services as we discouraged mental health providers and ran them out of town.

People living on the reservation deserve better. They deserve a government responsive to their needs and public servants to assist them, guide them and go out of their way to bring better standards of living to their community. It doesn't always have to take money. It only takes leadership.

Siamak Khadjenoury is chief executive officer of Vista Springs Behavioral Health Network in Sierra Vista, Ariz. Vista Springs specializes in implementation and management of private behavioral health services on and off reservations throughout the United States. www.vistasprings.com