Ideas in the Wild: How Jeff Roth Aims To Inspire Public Servants to Push Through the Red Tape
Working in the public sector can be tough. Public servants want to make a difference, but too often you find themselves trapped in a labyrinth of ridiculous and impossible obstacles, facing down the three-headed monster of government itself: policies, procedures, and regulations.
It’s enough to make anyone want to give up. Jeff Roth wrote Fires, Floods, and Taxicabs to inspire his fellow public servants to keep pushing forward.
Jeff spent twelve years inside New York City government, facing setbacks, slowdowns, and outright knockouts. Now he shares the tricks and methods he has developed to push back against bureaucracy and make a difference. I recently caught up with Jeff to learn what inspired him to write the book and his favorite lesson he learned during his journey.
What happened that made you decide to write the book? What was the exact moment you realized these ideas needed to get out there?
There were several moments that confirmed a book like this was needed. When confronting complex policy questions as a young analyst, there were many times I wished there were more books that spoke the language of the public sector. There are countless books for business leadership and project management, but not as many for those same things in the public context. Readers like me were left to translate from the private to some of the uniqueness of the public. Fast-forward a decade when we were building the NYC Department of Veterans Services from the ground-up, the experiences of building a new city agency in NYC government crystalized for me that a book like this was needed.
While in the throes of startup life, I read Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. In it he talks about the intensity of life in a startup and the difficulty of navigating that environment. Decision-making is hard in part because there are no guidebooks for the hard things. That’s when it hit me that I should offer a guidebook from the unique experiences I was living — that I could offer some of my lessons learned to others who might follow a similar service-orientated path.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned going through the journies you share in the book?
I share many of the lessons I have learned in my time in government and the military, much of it about navigating the nitty gritty of project management and leading people. I include experiences ranging from using data to drive decision-making; conducting assessments to streamline processes and operations; managing chaos and emergency situations; setting a vision and a strategy for implementation; developing people and building teams; creating something new despite bureaucratic hurdles; managing projects and timelines; brushing myself off after being knocked down; and plain ol’ getting things done.
Perhaps the most difficult personally was when I was nominated for a senior city government position by the mayor, only to get blocked by the city council. That was a rough time, but all things work out in the end. I also offer ways to manage and support the daily grind of making an impact. The tools and techniques I picked-up along the way had a big impact on my contributions to getting things done.
Hands-down though, the most important lesson I have learned is just how incredible, innovative, creative, and dedicated are the people with whom I have worked. Every day I have watched people work against incredible odds, with limited resources, and significant constraints, just to make something a little better for the public they serve. I not only find that inspiring, but noble.
It is this dedication that gives our republic breath, and preserves our way of life. It is the cornerstone of good citizenship, and I believe that everyone should give some time of their careers to serving our public institutions. It is our duty for us each to do our part.
How will you apply this lesson in your work and life moving forward?
In my tenure in government and the military, I have gained a lot of perspective and experiences. The most important to me are the relationships with the phenomenal people I have met and worked with along the way. There are countless, dedicated people who work hard every day to make a difference in the lives of others, and to serve the public.
Moving forward, I hope that my work can help amplify and expand the work that others are doing. That is, inspire, help and guide those doing the incredibly difficult work of governing, making change, or ensuring the trains all run on time. But more than that, moving forward I hope to find other ways to serve the public. I have always believed that there are no shortage of problems, just a shortage of leaders willing to roll-up their sleeves and commit to doing the work required to make the world a little better. And recent events certainly indicate that we need everyone to do some rolling up of their sleeves, to dig in and get dirty in the incredibly difficult work of moving our country forward. It’s not enough to sit on the sideline wishing for change.
Change requires people willing to do the mundane work of moving mountains. For me, I will use the lessons I’ve learned in NYC, the incredible and awe-inspiring city it is, to lead and do the mundane work of moving mountains wherever I am called next.