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April 3, 2003

Does Government Suffer From "Senior Moments, Too?"

Alan Imhoff

Having passed the "double-nickel" milestone in my life, I sometimes go through a period of trying to remember something, but cannot just quite get it. Or worse still, really forgetting.

Lately I have begun to muse that not only are individuals subject to this phenomenon but, perhaps, so are our institutions of power. However, instead of calling it a "senior moment," we use the term "lack of institutional memory."

It seems that with very few tenured employees in decision making positions, government frequently forgets what it did just a few years ago. Sometimes it repeats itself, another symptom of old age, or treats the information as brand new even when it is not.

I am sure you have heard on more than one occasion that some bright, young person has found a particular solution to a problem only to be put in their place by senior service employee that "yes, that is a terrific idea, in fact we tried that 20 years ago".

If I were to explain "lack of institutional memory" to you I need look no farther than Frederick County government. I apologize up front if my memory doesn’t get the "real" numbers, but here goes.

Over the past four elections we have chosen 14 different individuals to serve as our county commissioners.

Over the past three years or so, we have had 3 directors of planning (not to mention a return of the one who retired to serve on an interim basis while we wait for the fourth to be appointed).

Over the past four or five years, I am starting to lose track here, we have had three county managers that followed on the heels of a string of executive assistants, not to be confused with those who serve as secretaries to the commissioners.

Over the past five or six years, but who is counting, we have had at least three, if not four, different chief financial officers, not to mention at least three or four budget officers.

I have lost track of directors in a variety of departments due to improvement in organization re-structuring.

Get an idea that the 14 individuals we have elected, who rely on "staff," do not always get the benefit of those who have been around awhile?

How many senior staff members were around in the late 1980s when the county was planning a regional water system that would not allow for private public water systems? A regional system that was going to build a water line to the Potomac River to meet the needs of the county by a year a lot earlier than what we are looking at today.

How many senior staff members remember the discussions of improvements to I-270/US15 in the mid-1980s, most of which we are still waiting for.

You might be asking, what difference does it make if our senior elected and appointed officials have no recollection of past decisions, plans or policies. Well, for me, what I do remember from reading history is that when government forgets, it often repeats itself.

So what, again. Well, quite often repetition in this context often means more funds expended for something that could have been or should have been done years ago. How else can you explain the new county fire station on New Design Road, which opened last August at a cost of only $2.5 million, and which was first proposed and approved in 1990 at $400,000.

I am sure many of you have your own stories similar to the senior service employee mentioned above. One only has to go back to the 1990-1994 Board of Commissioners to see the ""institutional memory" playing out in the financial woes of the county today.

Will we learn from that memory or will some bright, young person says, "Hey, have I got a solution for you."



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