August, 2010

What I Wish BHD Had Done


I’m a consultant.  So a lot of what I do and say comes from the comfort of the sidelines.  I watch things.  I analyze.  I suggest.  But I’m rarely in the line of fire.

The past several months I’ve watched a friend (and a client by the way) stand squarely in the line of fire.  I’m talking about John Chianelli, until yesterday, the administrator of Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health Division.  I’ve worked with John for many years – in the Continuum of Care (Milwaukee’s homeless coalition, on the reform of GAMP (General Assistance Medical Program – now known as BadgerCare Core), and in facilitating strategic planning sessions for the leadership team at BHD and assisting in the effort to integrate the AODA and mental health treatment systems into a more coherent, welcoming system for everyone.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done and proud of my association with John Chianelli.  He’s a gifted public administrator – talented, committed, energetic.  This recent situation is a tragedy all round.

Anyway, despite my great respect for John and the work BHD has done to reform itself, I am really troubled by how they’ve handled this crisis.  They stonewalled.  Something very bad happened on their watch and they battoned down the hatches and went mum. 

BHD runs a public psychiatric hospital.  This is a challenging job with a lot of potential for error – especially when resources are scarce.  It’s not as if the public might not understand that a mistake happened.  Mistakes happen in this hard world.  But maybe on the advice of lawyers, maybe on their own counsel, BHD slammed the door shut.  No one called a press conference.  No one came out with the facts of the story.  No one said they were sorry.

This last element is the sticking point for me.  When little Christopher Thomas was killed at the hands of his kinship caretaker, the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare dummied up, looked at us (the public) stonefaced as if they had nothing to explain and nothing to apologize for.  I’m not afraid to admit it – Christopher Thomas’ death made me weep.  It also moved me to become a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) to stick up for a kid in foster care.  But back to BHD.

What I wanted to hear from Milwaukee County was an apology along with an acknowledgement that something went terribly wrong and needed to be fixed. 

BP figured this out too late — taking the advice of their lawyers until the entire world condemned their rotten behavior in the Gulf before and after the spill.  Same with Toyota.  Stonewall.  Denial.  Silence.  And then the avalanche of criticism and hatred.  The New York Times’ recent article, “In Case of Emergency:  What Not to Do,” lays it all out.  When there’s a catastrophe, disclose it immediately.  Come clean.  Be clear on what will be done to avoid a recurrence.  Own up.

It’s not just strategy — gee, if BHD had done the Tylenol thing, it would all be ok — it’s also about public accountability and transparency.  And being and feeling sorry when something bad happens.  And meaning it.  I wish BHD administrators had done that — so they could enlist the public in their efforts to reform the mental health system instead of fueling the years’ old fires of suspicion and conflict.  Sad thing.  But bigger sad than just a couple of people — sad for all of us as a town.

Someplace Else

View from the Log Slide near Grand Marais, Michigan

It’s that time of year.  Time to pack up – hiking boots, swim suit, couple of good books, and, of course, a work project or two – and hit the road for Grand Marais, Michigan.

It’s not a new place.  It’s the same place.  Like going home in a lot of ways, but always offering a new perspective.  You can get that by being someplace else – no matter where that someplace else is. 
See you in a few weeks.

Fresh Eggs for Sale: Cartons Needed

This guy knows his customer.  Don’t you think?  He knows that there is that one person in a million passersby who will stop at his funky weird, somewhat scary shop on Hwy 2 in the UP.  And he’s betting that birdbrain will have an empty egg carton in his car and offer to buy a dozen and that the guffaw will be heard all the way to the Soo.

Or maybe he really does sell eggs. We don’t really know.  What we do know is that the place sends out a freaky vibe that makes everyone want to stop to take pictures but not go inside.  The place radiates the feeling that the joke’s on you if you take this seriously.

I’m intrigued by the mixed messages.  Interested?  Come on in!  But bring your own egg carton.  And don’t be scared or worried.  It might look strange and off-putting but it’s really cozy and comfy inside. Sure.  I’m not taking that chance.

Sound like any place you know?

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time


There are things I’ve done to facilitate group discussions that, in retrospect, make me roll my eyes and yearn for witness protection.  Even more astonishing than the cockamamie things I asked people to do is the fact that 99.9% of the time, people would do them!

Without flinching,

  • The head of UMOS agreed to write a ‘pressing community need’ on a balloon and tack it to the wall to be popped later by the expert facilitator as we established need priorities.
  • Waukesha County’s budget director along with his key staff wrote their ‘most important outcomes’ on paper airplanes and sailed them at me and my co-facilitator in a flurry which had us scrambling around the floor trying to pick them up and read them.  (We planned pre-flight but not post-flight.)
  • A police chief used crayons to draw his favorite summertime memory as a boy which had him on his bike in the hills overlooking his town and then label the picture “Lucky.”  (This was actually one that worked pretty well – helping a new Youth Collaborative harken back to the golden days of freedom and playfullness of their youth.  Unfortunately, they then went on to plan more structured activities for kids.  Oh well.)
  • Emergency shelter directors constructed their ‘visions’ of how the Shelter Task Force should operate using (what else?) Tinkertoys.  (Didn’t work – they all looked like spaceships.)

In addition to this kind of stuff, I went through a period of taking little jars of Play-Doh to every meeting.  I probably have more Play-Doh in my office right this second that Milwaukee’s biggest day care — because, you know or maybe you don’t, that you really can’t use Play-Doh twice.  Has to be new.

Anyway, participants in a planning meeting will generally do whatever the facilitator asks them to do if the facilitator conveys a genuine commitment to the process and a real enthusiasm for the results.  If the facilitator equivocates, then people will hang back.  I witnessed someone at a large gathering not so long ago open the meeting by promising a great icebreaker and then, surprisingly, losing his nerve at the last minute.  If you’re going to do something different, you have to plunge in like you believe it. 

Now I pretty much stick with the simple and striking.  Like this ball.  This is possibly the most enticing ball on the planet.  So I use it to do introductions or I’ll just have it sitting on the table available for people to  pick up and fiddle with.  People like it that I thought to bring some toys; most people will get into it.  It helps them play while being serious.  Takes the edge off.  Gives them something to laugh about.  Makes the room warmer and happier. 

Sometimes, though, people gather to plan or discuss or strategize and they are just too up tight to pick up that ball.  The ball will sit there the entire session.  Like it was made of crystal.  Everyone is afraid of the ball, ignores it, looks at their hands.  When that happens, witness protection is looking better and better.

Milwaukee Brighter Futures Year End Report 2009

Milwaukee Brighter Futures is a state-funded prevention program managed by Community Advocates.  The performance of the 2009 crop of Brighter Futures programs is summed up in this Year End Report.  BF 2009 Year End Report  Milwaukee Brighter Futures programs reached 14,910 children, youth and families in 2009, providing critically needed prevention education and intervention services.  Each Brighter Futures project is profiled in detail: demographics, participation frequency, leveraging, outputs, and outcomes.

Especially helpful for people interested in program design and evaluation are projects’ self-reflections, the section in each profile which includes the project operator’s own assessment of implementation challenges and successes.  This practice of asking projects to honestly evaluate their own progress has given Brighter Futures management the critical information needed to improve prevention planning and service delivery.  This kind of sharing – of the good and the not so good – is what sets Brighter Futures apart and keeps it real.  Worth a quick read!

More information about Milwaukee Brighter Futures is available at