An Eskimo roll at SDC?
There is a counter-intuitive rule in whitewater kayaking with a metaphorical parallel in public governance.
When you get knocked over in a big rapid, your first instinct is to get your head out of the water so that you can continue to breathe. But to do that, you have to roll the boat right-side-up and that requires leaving your head in the water until you execute the step-by-step motions of an Eskimo roll. Done properly, the final step brings your head up. Done poorly, you flail around, your head stays in the water, you bail out, or you drown.
Instinct tells you to get your head up, but if you don’t right the boat first your head stays in the water. Training teaches that if you follow the right steps, your head will automatically come to the surface.
That rule, when applied to politics and the governance of organizations, is probably more often than not forgotten in times of crisis. When the metaphorical water gets rough, the first impulse is often to flail about, to counter-attack or to practice denial until you run out of air.
All of which simply delays the inevitable moment when a candid conversation has to take place, when you have to right the boat so that you can regain control and breathe.
Ask Bill Clinton if he doesn’t now believe it would have been infinitely wiser to have immediately admitted his foolish affair with Monica Lewinsky. Had he done so, had he rolled up with the truth, he would have avoided impeachment, many would have forgiven him and both he and the country could have moved on.
That’s the power of confession, the power of transparency.
Which brings us to the Sonoma Developmental Center and its overseer, the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS), which has a major transparency problem.
Rocked by revelations about incidents of abuse and non-compliance with federal standards of care, DDS has chosen to impose a cone of silence over SDC, denying requests for routine information and permission to interview staff, even for stories on programs and services that would actually make SDC look good. Instead, DDS delays and denies access, often imposing needlessly aggressive HIPAA constraints and prohibiting staff from talking with reporters at the risk of being fired.
It is a fundamental rule of politics that, when other people are defining and driving your issues, they are controlling you and your agenda, instead of the other way around.
The metaphorical Eskimo roll for DDS would be to quit denying media access to information and personnel for legitimate stories, quit hiding behind HIPPA, and to sponsor a public meeting to openly address the allegations and issues that have knocked the department upside down with its head underwater.
To be clear, we do not fault the DDS Office of Communications for the roadblocks we so frequently encounter. They don’t make policy, they just explain it. They aren’t paddling the boat and they can’t roll it up. Only the top administration of DDS can do that.
If they choose to do so, they could dramatically shift the conversation – and the perception – about SDC, and they could lead a collaborative process to map the best future for a historic institution that still houses more than 500 residents, employs 1,400 staff, and occupies one of the most precious pieces of real estate in the entire Sonoma Valley.