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A Better Fire Department


I've become specialized in a very strange field, and it is so strange that I often find that I fantasize about the kind of jobs that can answer the question, "So what do you do?" with one response. Maybe a follow up at worst. For instance:

"So what do you do?"

"I'm a baker."

"What kinds of things do you bake?"

"Baked goods, mostly."

My cocktail party example goes more like this:

"What do you do?"

"I run in the mountains. Sometimes with my dog."

"Oh, I meant for a job."

"I work in and on public policy."

"So you're in government"

"No, not in government."

"So you're a lobbyist."

"I have been a lobbyist. And I have been a registered lobbyist in 25+ states. But I wouldn't say am a lobbyist. Using lobbying is one of the tools used to make changes to public policy. Oh, never mind. Please ask me about the far distances I run, or religion or something."

As a result I've learned to relate these concepts to people through the use of metaphor and analogy. And the one metaphor that works the best for me is about building a better fire department. If you were to ask a person, "What does a firefighter do?" I would guess that the immediate reaction would be, "Puts out fires".

Of course, firefighters do a whole lot more than that. They go to schools and community meetings to teach fire safety. They advocate for smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. They sit on councils working to enact appropriate fire safety and building codes. They recruit volunteers to serve as fire marshals. They cook pancakes, they pose for calendars. Being a firefighter is a multifaceted job.

I am willing to guess that if you asked a firefighter about it they would say that putting out the fires, the actual running into the truck, and dashing off to douse the blaze is less important than all the other things involved in their job.

And so it is with working on public policy. In so many of my conversations with innovators, and private sector suitors the thing that is on top of their mind is the fire that is burning in front of their face. And this certainly makes sense. If your house is on fire, you are not running through a check list of fire safety protocols you should have put in place six months ago. One is thinking, "PUT THIS DAMNED FIRE OUT." To lecture about six months before, or six months after is missing the point. They've only come to me because they believe their business is about to come to a crashing halt.

What I do is communicate how we put that fire out. And, once saved, how we rebuild the business to be less susceptible to more fires. Or as Rahm Emanuel would say, "Never let a serious crisis go to waste."

I'd prefer you call me before your house is on fire, but call me nonetheless. Calendar posing costs extra, though.