Activist/Analyst

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By Michael Hsu, Staff Writer

Published 6.9.15

By her own description, Presidio Graduate School Professor Donna LaSala is a “very, very passionate Sicilian woman” whose New York upbringing explains how she can talk “for two hours without taking a breath” at a bracingly rapid-fire rate of speech.

Given all that energy, it’s hardly surprising that Donna, who is retiring this summer as the City of Berkeley’s Director of Information Technology, has amassed an impressive portfolio of accomplishments—and lessons learned that she applies directly to her classes at PGS.

As Berkeley’s IT director since 2007, Donna has been responsible for the strategic planning, financial management, and successful operation of the technology services and programs for the city (including the coordination of over 150 different software systems). As an adjunct faculty member at PGS, Donna teaches Public Sector Finance; Information Management, Technology & Policy; and Research Methods & Policy Evaluation.

Presidian caught up with Donna (but only just barely) to hear about her work at PGS, her Berkeley achievements, and her future plans.

PRESIDIAN: Why did you get involved at Presidio Graduate School?

DONNA: I decided to join PGS because I was excited by the opportunity to bring real-world, practitioner insights into the curriculum that could help shape the next generation of public sector leaders and partners.

I had repeatedly experienced difficulty finding qualified applicants for public sector leadership positions and private sector partners who truly understood how government works. It dawned on me that I could play a meaningful role in helping alleviate the problem by contributing to the education of MPA, MBA, and—especially—dual MPA/MBA students. That got me excited! What a great way to transform my frustration at not finding qualified applicants into meaningful action!

PRESIDIAN: What are some things that you wish those people knew about how government works?

DONNA: There are two categories of things that were bothering me very deeply about applicants—particularly in the last decade. One was a lack of systems thinking: folks had a lot of knowledge—very discrete sets of knowledge. But the folks that we were interviewing didn’t really have a very good rubric or frame of mind for how all of these discrete bodies of knowledge really work and interact in a systems-thinking perspective. They don’t understand how all the parts connect and work like gears in a system.

Second, and more specifically, I often encounter both in applicants and in students very extreme viewpoints such as, “Government should be run more like a business” or “Government is government and that’s the way government will always be.” What I think those assertions belie is a lack of understanding around the ways in which the mission of government and the mission of a private sector entity are very purposefully different.

PRESIDIAN: How would you explain those differences?

DONNA: It begins with the way we steward our resources around risk. Fundamentally, private firms profit from risk. So they really are, in some sense, risk seekers. But government’s charge is to steward public resources; they are supposed to hold onto capital holdings. When you think just from a finance point of view, that is a very, very different perspective and mission.

The other area of response is: private sector market failures are exactly what government is supposed to be working toward addressing. Government gets in there and tries to address certain externalities—and that frustrates the profit-seeking motives of private firms. And then we get into this almost “name-calling” type of interaction.

When students engage in that debate without a clear understanding of why that debate is even happening, I think we do ourselves a disservice as change agents in the sustainability realm. I’m so passionate and so excited about educating our MPA/MBAs in that public/private partnership space to understand and speak “Government” and to speak “Private Sector”—and be able to bridge that gap.

Presidio Graduate School professor Donna LaSala looks over assignments during March residency in San Francisco, CA on Saturday, March 22, 2014.

PRESIDIAN: One of your oft-repeated PGS mantras calls for the cultivation of “activist” and “analyst” skills. Can you elaborate?

DONNA: My experience is that Presidio attracts a lot of activist energy because people care and believe and want to make change. Where we get into some imbalance is where we send folks into the workforce with all of this activist energy but not a lot of skill in steeping their thoughts and their narrative in sensible analytics. So, in my experience, I’ve seen bright, fresh graduates come into my organization and they don’t really understand the business of government and how the hard work gets done.

So if you have strong activist narrative skills and strong, hardcore quantitative analytical skills, that means you not only know how to figure out what the story really is, you also know how to tell that story in a way that inspires. Sometimes you change people’s minds or hearts by using activist energy—-and sometimes by using analysis.

The uber lesson—the macro lesson—in that is you’ve got to be able to have a nuanced approach to meeting people where they’re at. You can’t pull people to meet them where you’re at; you’ve got to go and meet people where they’re at.

The other metaphor I use with my students is we need to give you that box of 64 Crayola crayons with all of the different colors—and the sharpener. You might walk into graduate school with the box of 24 crayons. But you get out of here with the box of 64.

PRESIDIAN: PGS Experiential Learning (EL) projects give students many of those crayons. Last year, Presidians contributed 1,500 hours of work in launching the open data portal for Berkeley. This year, a couple of your students are doing financial modeling and data visualization for the city’s Climate Action Plan. What makes PGS EL projects unique?

DONNA: I think it’s unusual in the extent to which students are actually doing the work and producing it in its final form. They’re not producing a draft. My impression is that, in most EL projects, folks go off into the field and they do maybe 60-70% usable work—and then it’s modified by practitioners, and then presented to the council. These students’ work is actually going to be what hits the dais, what hits the legislative body.

And, personally, working with students on EL projects have been some of the most rewarding work of my career. Presidians bring unparalleled humility and commitment to the work they perform. Working with such dedicated and aspirational students has reinvigorated my commitment to public service. After 16 years in the public sector, that sort of reaffirmation is more valuable than words can truly convey!

PRESIDIAN: Looking back on your career, what are the accomplishments of which you are most proud?

DONNA: I’m getting a little choked up over this…I helped initiate and develop a curriculum for the leadership development program at the City of Berkeley, which really honed in on those quantitative and qualitative skills that our internal staff members need to grow their own careers. About 30% of my staff right now have been promoted into their positions. I’m super proud of that. You’re not an employee in my department without getting some education value-add! In many ways, it was the precursor to me getting involved at Presidio.

On the operational side, the two things that are coming instantly to mind are. One, I’ve really gotten the city to change its approach to investing in IT infrastructure. When I first got here, we didn’t have any capital replacement funds for IT. But I was able to convince not only our Council and the City Manager but also department manager colleagues that IT really needs to be invested in as we do traditionally for public works capital infrastructure, like storm drains and streets. So, early on, I started comparing IT to public works—IT is the public works of the future!

The other thing is I helped found the 311 Call Center [to address questions on municipal services]. After we moved the 311 Call Center into the IT department, representatives now answer 95% of the calls, with a 5% or less abandon rate, and 55% first-call resolution on all types of community calls that come into the City of Berkeley. I am so proud and honored that I had a chance to do that because that is not a traditional IT role. But the call center really does connect the dots between the community feedback about how our systems are working and the systems we put in place.

PRESIDIAN: So what’s next for you, after you retire from the City of Berkeley in August?

DONNA: I’ve really longed for the opportunity to devote more time to the Presidio. I feel like I do a good job as an instructor but there’s more I can do—having more hours to devote to crafting and giving feedback on EL projects, developing the curriculum, and going to educational conferences rather than IT director conferences. Teaching brings me an incredible amount of joy.

So I’m going to dive into the Presidio—but first I’m going to take a couple weeks off. I feel like I’ve been working at warp-speed for the last 16 years!

Michael Hsu, Staff Writer

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