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EDITORIAL: Memo to Loudoun’s supervisors: Learning is OK

At a retreat to plan how Loudoun navigates the present and moves toward its future, the chair of the Board of Supervisors proposed to add a word to the board’s vision statement.

“I’d like to add the word ‘learn,'” Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) said. “ ... live, work, learn and play.”

Debate emerged over whether “learn” should be part of the Loudoun vision.

“If we’re going do that, I’d like to say to run like a business,” Supervisor Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) countered.

While Volpe may disagree with Randall about a vision, there’s not much to dislike about Randall’s choice of a word. In the context Randall intended, “learn” relates to the county becoming a “learning organization,” the business term given to an organization that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself.

The concept is not a new one. It was coined by Peter Senge at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and flourished in the 1990s with the seminal book, “The Fifth Discipline.” The “learning organization” has been at the heart of business theory for two decades with articles in the Harvard Business Review and countless other publications. It is taught at business workshops on websites and at Harvard Business School.

A learning organization is the business term applied to organizations that facilitate the learning of its members and continuously transform themselves. It’s a vision of what might be possible. Given the county’s growth and its transformation, it seems reasonable for the county’s leaders to embrace the idea.

But some supervisors remain unconvinced. Listen to Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles):

“I think the ‘learn' thing is going to be like ... adults are going to think we’re talking about them, and now it’s going to be, ‘Your government’s telling all of us that we have to learn.'”

Letourneau confuses adult education in one of the country’s best educated counties with a business approach to organizational management. The “learn thing,” as he puts it, is not about telling citizens to learn. It’s about asking the supervisors and the county’s 2,500 employees to continuously learn and adapt as they consider how the county changes. That includes the adoption of a new Comprehensive Plan -- a learning document -- that is flexible and adaptive in changing times.

Some leaders may think that learning is a soft business value, unessential for a practical set of rules addressing relentless development. This assumption is not merely flawed – it’s risky in the face of intensifying competition, advances in technology, the shifts in demographics and the unanticipated conflicts that emerge with growth and change. Organizations need to learn more than ever as they confront these mounting forces.

Instead, elected officials too often turn to the convenient cliche about running government like a business.

The business of business is business. The goal of business is to earn a profit in the provision of goods and services.

The business of government is service – well-managed, one hopes, and not wasteful, but not at a profit.

Certainly sound business practices can and should be applied by our elected officials. But there are differences between business and government. They are not opposites, but they are distinct. The mindsets are necessarily different. The understandings are different. The obligations are different.

Consider the basic practice of managing money. There is no such thing as government money. Local governments have no money; they manage the money of their citizens. They have only what they collect from citizens, either in taxes, fees or by inflation. And if local government accrues profit it can only have done so by taxing too much or eroding the value of the citizens' income and savings -- in either case doing harm, not good, to the people who have created it.

Learning will inform how the county lives, works and play. As nine supervisors lead Loudoun into the future, we wonder why some are so reluctant to embrace it.

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