Change Agents Are Everywhere

When I first heard about Rhode Island Treasurer, Gina Raimondo, I recognized that she was a true change agent! Ms. Raimondo was elected, as a Democrat, on the platform that her state absolutely had to resolve its pension problem. From the Wall Street Journal article:

Because there has been little legislative or public support for raising taxes, the Ocean State has been cutting public services to pay its pension bills. A few years ago Ms. Raimondo read “an article in the paper about libraries closing and public bus service being cut nights, weekends and holidays, and I just thought it doesn’t have to be this way.” The story made her consider a bid for treasurer.

Once she was elected, Gina Raimondo did the things we recommend to create a change that lasts:

  1. She made her case for change: “Making the state even more expensive by raising taxes would have caused many Rhode Islanders to leave.”
  2. She created a community of all of the relevant stakeholders to determine the best solution to the problem: “In June, Ms. Raimondo formed a 12-member commission to study potential solutions, which included four union representatives as well as several accountants and consultants. Over the next three months the group met periodically, culminating in the pension-reform legislation that Ms. Raimondo and Gov. Lincoln Chafee introduced in October.”
  3. She spent the majority of her time criss-crossing her state to communicate the need for change and give everyone a chance to ask questions and understand what the proposed change would mean to them: “I would talk to social workers or social-service agencies who, when I started to talk about pensions, would ask ‘Why should I care about pensions?’ And I said, ‘Because if you don’t, your whatever it is, homeless shelter, is going to lose X thousand of dollars of funding.'”
  4. She recognized that resistance to change is normal, and she tackled it head-on by being honest about the current status: “…she wasn’t afraid to “walk into the belly of the beast” and tell the unions point-blank that “you were lied to [by former politicians] and the system is broken. Today we’re arguing about whether you get a COLA [cost-of-living adjustment], tomorrow we’ll be arguing about whether you get a pension.”

As an inspiration to change agents everywhere, here is the outcome of all of her hard work:

Although thousands of union members turned out at the capitol to protest, it was an open-and-shut case. The public so overwhelmingly supported the reforms that Ms. Raimondo warned lawmakers who opposed them that they wouldn’t be re-elected. She knew she was connecting with the public when the clerks at Home Depot began noticing who she was and offering support. By mid-November, her legislation became the law of the land in Rhode Island with minor modifications. Seventy-seven of 94 Democrats voted for it.

Ms. Raimondo downplays the opposition from her former union allies. As she tells it, the reforms passed because she conducted “a huge, long, relentless public-education campaign,” and there was no “rushing to a solution.” Plus, the unions were at the table the entire time, she says. “Yes, there was a big protest. They weren’t entirely supportive, but we had a reasonably productive dialogue the entire time—which we still have.”

I wish Gina Raimondo, and all change agents like her, every success as they tackle our hardest societal problems, and tenaciously encourage us to change, together, for the better!

About Michelle Smeby

Michelle Smeby is CEO of wHolistic Change, Inc. with more than 10 years of experience implementing enterprise solutions at Fortune 100 companies. Michelle specializes in helping corporations deliver transformational change.
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