I read this excerpt on Next City from Gabe Klein’s book, Start-Up City with interest. Klein has served in several diverse private and the public sector positions, but this piece is about his transition from food truck owner to Director of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT).
He writes about the multitude of governmental departments that regulated food trucks when he started out—everything from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to the Department of Health. The laws and policies in place were from a time before food trucks rose to popularity and, well-intentioned though they may once have been, they had not adapted to the needs of this newly booming food truck market. He writes that working with others to fight for change in these laws “earned me a reputation in the D.C. city administrative offices as sort of a rabble-rouser.”
And then he was invited to take over as Director of the DDOT, in spite of the fact that he did not come from any of the typical origins of transportation directors which he lists as:
- moving “up the civil service ladder";
- emerging “through political allegiances"; or
- working “for a private consulting firm, often in engineering, and com[ing] in via the revolving door between the public sector and the private-sector firms."
Klein concludes his essay with the following insightful, if controversial, statement:
We need more young entrepreneurs in government. Period. It doesn’t matter that you may not have a master’s of public administration or a degree in urban planning and that you can’t tell the DCRA from the DOT from the DOH. It’s fine to be a tech start-up genius or a business school graduate working in Silicon Valley, see the myriad faults and imperfections of government, and work from the outside to be a change agent. In many cases, I actually think it’s the responsible thing to do to persevere in the face of bad regulations and disrupt them. If that’s what it takes to have food trucks, better taxis, or affordable accommodations, then that’s what the private sector should do. But what far too few of these change agents have done is shown the courage, or taken the opportunity, to disrupt and work with these cities from within.
In short, we need more people from entrepreneurial backgrounds to step up and take on roles in the government, even if they disagree with what it’s currently doing.
I would expand on Klein’s argument further to say that we need people from any number of nontraditional backgrounds. We need teachers and daycare providers and construction workers and computer scientists to join local government because the government exists to serve and represent the people, and what better way to be represented than by taking a seat at the table? We need these diverse voices working for rebellious change because if they’re not present, it will just be the same tired “old boys club” it has always been. We don’t get the kind of change Strong Towns is advocating unless we shift the status quo.
Gabe Klein’s piece also reminded me of an organization called Rebels at Work, which I was first introduced to while working for the federal government, at the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Rebels at Work is a place “for corporate rebels to share experiences, insights and advice with other rebels and aspiring rebels.” As its website explains, “By rebels we’re talking about those people who feel compelled to create ways to improve, change, and innovate. They are brave (or foolhardy) enough to stand against the prevailing mindset of the organization and argue for a better way.” Although the organization uses the term “corporate” in their language, they speak broadly about being a rebel in any workplace.
At HUD, this manifested in the form of dozens of employees from across the country gathering together on projects that challenged the slow pace of bureaucratic change. We pushed for greater transparency, better use of technology and more comprehensive parental leave policies for employees, and eventually, the people in power listened. It was an energizing experience and made us all more enthusiastic to be there and more invested in our work. Those rebel efforts continue to this day at HUD and other government agencies.
The Strong Towns message demands active intervention in the systems that keep our cities from thriving; from overly-complex permitting processes, to dangerous street designs to insolvent budgets.
Being a rebel is a challenge, but you are among friends here at Strong Towns because so many supporters and members here have gone against the grain in their current workplace to make change. Indeed, it is often the only way change has occurred.