Operations

Surviving Politics in Public Fleet

January 2017, Government Fleet - Feature

by Jon White

By virtue of living in a democracy, all levels of government are subject to the impact of politics. We choose and replace the government at all levels through free and fair elections. Therefore, any activity related to the governing body (including fleet management) can be considered “political” — even the act of calling a meeting to discuss fleet operations can be deemed political in nature.

At a glance

Politics can affect fleet during:

  • Emergency situations
  • Changes in administration and with newly elected officials
  • Long-term initiatives that last through several administrations.

Whether managing a fleet at the city, county, state, or federal level, the fleet manager faces huge challenges day to day, many of which have their roots in politics and/or political influence.

As an industry, we try to bring forward, be conscious of, and be diligent in implementing fleet management that embodies practices considered to be “best” by industry peers. However, some of the factors that impact our programs and practices may be out of our control, and some factors are the direct result of our democratic culture. Fleet management may be required at times to suddenly adjust to changes mandated by a council or legislature, regardless of the fleet-­specific expertise and knowledge embodied by management. In order to survive and serve citizens efficiently, fleet management must at least attempt to mitigate the risks associated with politics.

Effective fleet management is challenged across customer departments, through finance and procurement, as well as the chief elected official. Being fluid with these changes can mean the difference between success and failure.

Examples of where risks might emerge:

  • Long-term initiatives may be canceled or postponed as new leadership comes into office
  • Differing personalities at the director level within user departments, as appointed by new leadership
  • Customer expectations may change with an administration change and roll down to operators
  • Weather and its impact on the political system through constituents.

All these situations yield risk for the fleet operation. How can these risks be mitigated?

Ensure Clear Communication

The first and most important factor to recognize is that “effectively managing politics equates to effectively moving with personalities and managing expectations with clear communications,” said Bob Degnan, retired commissioner, Department of Fleet Management, City of Chicago. “I always had comments from customers like, ‘I want one of those in my fleet,’ or ‘That’s the way we always did it,’ or ‘They’ll never let you do it that way.’ The answer is simple: Make certain you have good relations with the city executive leadership as well as customer department directors; run the organization with the highest efficiency and deal in facts.”

The City of Tulsa, Okla., fleet management also sees effective communication as the answer to political ramifications. For a number of years, the “self-­managed” citywide fleet management steering committee (FMSC), recommended by CST Fleet Services, established clear communication for fleet operations across the city and up through to top city ­executives. The FMSC is made up of members from each major branch of the city management (mayor’s office, finance, procurement) as well as from each major user department, and meets monthly. Customer departments are aware firsthand of fleet initiatives and dynamics.

Mark Hogan, director, City of Tulsa Asset Management, feels that the city effectively diminishes politics through the communication within the FMSC. In Tulsa, each customer department has a say in the fleet’s management. For example, the committee sets annual utilization guidelines. At the end of the year, the committee examines the under­utilized equipment and the owning department of an underutilized vehicle must defend its retention. Recourses are either that the underutilized unit is remarketed or it gets reassigned to another department or to the motor pool.

Degnan said an FMSC with department representatives becomes a strong, solid influence at all levels of the government political framework; generally customer department representation is validated because of the department’s ability to have input in the fleet planning and processes.

Tulsa’s FMSC also discusses and collaborates on specifications for vehicle procurement and agrees to citywide standards for vehicle classes. If the group approves a new vehicle spec that’s out of the norm, and new diagnostic tools are needed, the FMSC suggests that the user department requesting the vehicle help fund the tools and any special training, said Mike Wallace, maintenance manager.

“In this way, the customer department takes partial ownership of the change in the fleet profile,” he explained.

Craig Rice, executive fleet manager, Department of Water & Sewerage at City of Detroit, who has survived through four administrations and the city bankruptcy, said he always communicates fairly and honestly with city council.

“Over the years I always maintained mutual high regard with council because I conveyed a situational issue with transparency. Council always knew where I stood on issues because I frankly explained the situation — good or bad,” Rice said.

Degnan added this relationship can be a two-way street if and when fleet management may need the support of the council for an initiative.

“I always had comments from customers like, ‘I want one of those in my fleet,’ or ‘That’s the way we always did it,’ or ‘They’ll never let you do it that way.’ The answer is simple: Make certain you have good relations with the city executive leadership as well as customer department directors.”
— Bob Degnan, retired commissioner, Department of Fleet Management, City of Chicago

Protecting Long-Term Initiatives

The impact of politics upon the government sector is always cyclical. Each term of election, positions of responsibility are subject to change; from department directors to the highest governing positions, personnel changes are a fact that the fleet manager must handle. Even his or her appointed position may be subject to termination, and survivability may be a direct result of responding to the political movements from term to term.

Many fleet initiatives do not happen overnight. Many programs, such as a fleet right-sizing program or the implementation of an innovative vehicle capital planning program, can take several years and cross multiple administrations. In these cases, how can sustainability be achieved?

“In a situation like this, it is good to ‘load’ and design a long-term program with short-term successes and wins, which provide tangible benefits so that as new leadership emerges, benefits of the program can be easily seen and shown,” Degnan said. “The program can sustain itself on its own merit with, hopefully, minimal political disturbance.”

The City of Tulsa fleet insulates itself through its FMSC. “Our FMSC helps to protect the longevity of our long-term capital planning,” Hogan said.

How Weather Affects Politics & Fleet

What about severe weather, such as a snowstorm or a hurricane? This can have a huge impact on the fleet, and sometimes the backlash is felt by political fallout.

Hurricanes

Robert Martinez, deputy commissioner, New York Police Department, dealt with politics in New York City during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “I lost more vehicles from Sandy than I did from 9/11,” Martinez said. During the hurricane, the NYPD fleet learned that “fuel can become more valuable than gold; people will steal it, hurt people for it, transport it unsafely, etc. Politicians will give it and take it,” he said.

Other lessons the NYPD fleet learned include: making sure to provide emergency electric power and lighting, parking vehicles and equipment on high ground, and ensuring there is more than one fuel source for emergency generators.

“Rehearsing these events via a table-top exercise goes a long way in preparing,” Martinez said. And adequate fleet preparation for natural disasters can help prevent a political backlash.

Snowstorms

“Snowstorms in Chicago have had devastating political effects,” Degnan said. “Elections at various levels have been won or lost as a result of poor performance with snow.” Services such as refuse collection, street cleaning, and snow programs have a major impact on voters. Snow programs and snow removal also have an additional impact on the local economy, affecting merchants, ­factories, and other business providers. Thus the situation can become very political, very quickly.

Snow spreading and plowing are accomplished by a variety of assets provided and supported by the fleet operation. Their application is usually determined by a set structure of protocols agreed to by the various user departments. Table-top meetings and exercises, as previously referenced, are necessary to ensure success if and when you have to pull the trigger on any program.

If a snow removal effort begins to appear overwhelmed due to the storm, every level of political entity will try to make their own adjustments to the fleet snow program by maneuvering equipment in their own direction to satisfy their constituent base. If this occurs, equipment will be improperly deployed, the program will not perform as designed, taxpayers will be upset, and the fleet manager may not survive the residual controversy.

Rice recalls a very difficult situation related to snow in Detroit: “We had a crisis with a shortage of salt trucks during the early 2000s when the industry standard transmission changed, and it took a couple of years before supply could catch up with demand. This affected many municipal fleets and when the snowstorms came during this time frame, it became a political hot potato. As Degnan stated, our snow program salt trucks, or lack thereof, affected public safety, commerce, EMS, trash collection, etc.”

It is under these circumstances that a strong fleet manager with a solid relationship with the upper administration is necessary. Public fleet management is political, and that is the nature of the work. Keeping and managing all fleet operational plans effectively is essential to the success of fleet management — as well as its government body.

Jon White is an independent fleet consultant. He can be reached at [email protected]

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