Working as an agency within County Government
I. General introduction
If I was ever granted three wishes, I think my first wish would be that all public libraries have a standardized organizational structure that was simple, functional and that everyone could understand. I would then, of course, ask for world peace because it would just be embarrassing if I didn’t. I am pretty sure I would be granted my second wish but I am unsure of the first, because after all, it is foolish to ask for the impossible. What about the third wish? Well, three more wishes of course!
Let me share the structure of our library system and my thoughts on how a library functions as part of a larger county wide system.
Johnson County Library (JCL) is located in Johnson County, Kansas. The county has a population of approximately 550,000 residents; located south of Kansas City it can be considered part of the larger metropolitan area.
JCL is one of five agencies within the county that has an independent governing/policy board. The other agencies are Mental Health, Airport, Developmental Supports and Park and Recreations. The boards of each agency are appointed by the County Commissioners. The library board is comprised of 7 members each chosen by an individual commissioner.
The remaining county functions are performed by county departments that report to the County Manager’s Office. The County Manager’s Office also maintains oversight over the five agencies, including the library.
JCL’s main source of revenue comes from property taxes, and while the library is considered a separate taxing entity, the millage level is set by the County Commissioners and can be adjusted only at their discretion.
While the library does have a certain amount of autonomy, all library staff are considered county employees and comply with all county HR policies and regulations.
Our annual budget is approved by the library board and then presented to the Board of County Commissioners for final approval. During the budgeting process the library works closely with the County Manager’s Office and it is really a collaborative endeavor.
Our collection policy is set by our library staff, and the County Librarian has final authority over items that will be in the collection, including items that have been challenged. The Library Board only has the authority to ensure that all policies and procedures have been followed.
The Library Board has ownership of all buildings and the land that they occupy. The Library Board is also able to buy and sell land and buildings but must seek approval from the County Commissioners before any transaction can be authorized.
The other interesting dynamic within Johnson County is that we are not the only library system in the county. The city of Olathe has its own library system. Historically, this occurred because Olathe was the county seat, and their system is over 100 years old. JCL and Olathe Public Library (OPL) have formed a consortium, patrons can borrow from both systems using one library card, and this convenience makes the division between JCL and OPL invisible to our patrons. In addition, our ILS is fully integrated and we annually review a shared Memorandum of Understanding that defines our collaborative working relationship.
Alignment, communication and trust are what make this structure work. The interdependences cause us to constantly ask ourselves who the key stakeholders are and who we might have missed.
II. Advantages and Disadvantages
I have spent most of my career at a library system that could be considered completely independent and was categorized as a quasi-governmental entity that had taxing authority, but no overseeing governing political body. Although, that began to change in the last couple of years I spent with the organization.
JCL sits at the other end of the spectrum as a county agency with multiple areas of oversight. I am in the unique position having worked in both environments to look at the advantages and disadvantages.
Being part of county wide government does have some advantages. Economically, we are able to purchase health insurance at a lower cost because the county employs approximately 3,600 employees. The countywide facilities department is a tremendous resource to assist with strategic facilities master planning, and the county has dedicated significant time and resources to develop an outstanding employee performance management tool. These resources are not always available to independent library systems.
Some of the disadvantages are the amount of communication and coordination that goes into moving the library’s goals forward when you are in the arena of competing countywide agendas. One of the advantages of working at an independent library was that the organization as a whole was more agile and the stakeholders are mostly internal. An independent library has more control over staff compensation, and at times this can be an advantage. Communication can be faster, the lines of authority can be clearer and as a separate taxing entity you are one step further removed from political considerations.
I found that both models work and provide outstanding library service to the public. I do not think there is one ideal model. I think excellence is defined locally within your community and the culture you build within your library. I believe the reason communities across this country have outstanding libraries is because they have outstanding librarians.
There are both visible stakeholders and invisible stakeholders in the county system. The visible stakeholders are the Library Board, County Commissioners, County Manager’s Office, Library, Friends, Foundation and patrons. Each of these groups has varying levels of influence and points of view on the direction the library should be heading. Each has a voice, and that voice needs to be recognized and heard. At our monthly Library Board meetings we have representatives from each of these organizations. They are part of the agenda and give a report on their recent activities and issues they are facing.
Invisible stakeholders include the city mayors. Johnson County contains 20 cities and each has their own mayor, personal identity and history. My strategy to understand the larger community landscape has been going to chamber meetings, joining a Rotary club and attending legislative breakfasts. This year my goal is to look for opportunities to include more of my administrative team and encourage them to attend more of these functions.
Internal stakeholders are the staff. Connecting them to the larger organization of the county is an ongoing challenge. This year the administrative team has started visiting a branch location together every month. It is an informal brown bag lunch or breakfast depending on the location’s schedule. It’s an open forum for staff to get to know us and ask questions. It also gives the administrative team an opportunity to talk about the big picture and to give them more insight and information into the decisions that are being made. More importantly, it is a chance for the administrative team to understand the impact of decisions and understand where we got it right and where we might have got it wrong. The meetings are an opportunity for us to work together in creating a more effective organization.
We are committed to becoming a learning organization and understand that this only occurs by creating an environment that listens to the opinions of all stakeholders. We must be open and honest in explaining the rationale for the decisions that have been made, and then have the resilience to listen to feedback and the humility to change.
In order to help me think more about these ideas I have been reading “Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone” by Mark Goulston M.D. and Keith Ferrazzi, and my administrative team just read “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni. Over the last year I continue to use both of these books as a reference. They have both strengthened my listening skills and have forced me to question some of my assumptions concerning management and it role within an organization.
I have found that in a self-governing library the lines of authority tend to be simpler and I think this is a result of it being a smaller organization.
Lines of authority in a county wide system are more complex. In Tibetan culture they have the word “Bardo”; it means “the transitional”, this might be the best way to define how authority sometimes works in a county wide system. I do not mean that there are not clear lines of responsibility and authority that are followed, but the day to day workings require that each department and agency collaborate. For this to happen there has to be a high degree of trust and communication. As a result, administrators across the county must be able to work in a state of ambiguity and seek clarity and understanding from each other. This helps break down silos that can naturally form in any organization over time.
I feel that trust is the key component in making this collaboration work. In a recent Ted Talk, Onora O’Neill helped me understand the distinction between trust and trustworthiness. It is helpful to extend trust to others while focusing on being trustworthy. She described the three qualities of trustworthiness as competence, reliability and honesty. These are all behavioral subjects that can be talked about when trust becomes frayed.
Accountability and competence are linked today more than ever. Public libraries are entrusted with public funds; we publish annual reports and have built transparency into the budgetary processes that provide the public a window to ensure that the money is being spent in a wise and judicious manner. It is imperative that we continue to share this story with our communities.
A less tangible measure of accountability is how closely the organization is living up to its values. How is leadership responding to the needs of their staff and the community they serve? How do you measure the health of an organization? How do you become accountable in the areas of leadership, performance, strategy and people?
To answer these questions for JCL, I employed a third party tool that measures the four areas of leadership, performance, strategy and people, through an online survey that asked staff 75 questions. The report provided more than 600 data points and is coded green, amber and red so it is easy to read and understand.
Green indicates that everything is going well; amber is something you need to watch and red is an indication of an issue you need to address. It is proving to be an invaluable tool in understanding where we stand as an organization and where we need to strategically provide training and focus.
What most attracted me to this product is that it not only diagnoses problems but also provides a treatment program that helps move the red to amber and the amber to green in a methodical, systematic manner.
It is also a wonderful tool to use to report back to the Library Board, County Manager’s Office and to share with the Commissioners.
The vision, mission and values are foundational for any organization to attain organizational alignment. In our county wide system is has also been helpful to look at the county’s long term strategic plan. In 2009, the county engaged the community in creating a Citizens Visioning Committee to produce a shared community vision defining specific goals and recommended strategies to guide decisions and actions in Johnson County. The Citizens Visioning Committee was comprised of business leaders, educators and non-profit organizations. They produced a report in 2011, and when we started our strategic planning process we used this document and invited many of its creators to come and talk with us. We listened to their ideas concerning the library and the community we serve.
We also deployed an online community engagement tool to gain feedback from community members. When presenting the completed strategic plan to the library board we could show that we had clearly aligned our goals with the community’s needs.
As a Director it’s important that the Library Board and I share the same vision for the organization and that they have the confidence that I am moving the organization in the right direction. I have found it helpful in my monthly memorandum to share my calendar and to highlight certain events that may have occurred at the county or in the community.
Our yearly board retreat is another way for the administrative staff to connect with the library board, it is the chance for us to look at the last year and make any needed adjustments.
It is also important for JCL to be in alighment with our Foundation and Friends of the Library. The Library Foundation manages the library’s endowment and focuses on fund raising to support the collection and library programs. The Friends of the Library run our bookstores and manage two annual book sale events and handle online sales. We have a yearly Tri-Board meeting that provides an opportunity for the Friends, Foundation and Library boards to meet in a social context. We share what each of us has accomplished and talk about future endeavors. The annual Tri-Board meeting creates a sense of camaraderie and is a chance for us to celebrate our successes together and to get a deeper understanding of how each board contributes to the library.
I hope this has given you some insight into how JCL functions. I know that some of you face many of the same issues. Whether you are running a self-governing organization or are part of city, county or consortium it seems to me to always come back to balance. Can you balance the needs to the community, staff and other stakeholders with the resources you have been provided? Can you clearly communicate your vision and have other share that vision? Can you successfully move your organization forward into the future?
Goulston, Mark. Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting through to Absolutely Anyone. New York: American Management Association, 2010. Print.
Lencioni, Patrick. The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012. Print.
“Onora O’Neill: What We Don’t Understand about Trust.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Sept. 2013. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.