Innovator's Journey: Embrace Ambiguity to Discover New Answers

Tom Bonfield is a local government superstar and is now sharing some of his wisdom and learned lessons from his 40+ years in local government.

ARTICLE | Dec 15, 2020
Tom Bonfield speaking

Tom Bonfield is a local government superstar. In his 40+ years working for organizations like Temple Terrace, Pensacola, and Durham, he's really seen it all. Tom retired earlier this year and is now sharing some of his wisdom and learned lessons with us.

AFI: We talk a lot about antifragility, meaning growing stronger in the face of adversity, not just hunkering and bunkering. When you think about antifragility as a goal, is that where people should focus on now? Or is that an unreasonable ask?

Tom: There is definitely a tendency in some places to hunker down and try not to make things worse during tough times. But at the same time, I really think that organizations will use these opportunities for new ways of building their organization and increasing their organizational capacity.

I think back to even before the pandemic. In Durham, we began talking over a year ago about this idea of embracing ambiguity and added it as a theme of our organization. Too often, we're comfortable with what we think the answers are, and then we develop strategies to implement those answers. But as we've seen with the pandemic, it's such an unknown.

With many of the social justice issues that have surfaced throughout the summer, there may be things we think we know. Still, we really need to embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty because that allows us to be creative, innovative and find new solutions. In some cases, these are not new problems, but if we respond to them the same way they have been responded to in the last 40 years, we'll come up with the same answers and not get very far.

AFI: When you're trying to build an organization that can embrace ambiguity, you also have curiosity. How important is that? What other muscles can you build in an organization to make it capable of embracing ambiguity?

Tom: I think there has to be confidence in not knowing the answer. Sometimes not knowing the answer brings fear and that hunker-down mentality. I think it's important for leaders in the organization to instill confidence in all members of the organization - not just among the other leaders in the organization, but throughout all levels and admit that we don't know the answers. There is fear and uncertainty, but if the people in the organization have some assurance and reassurance from leaders, it's okay not to know. You're not going to be penalized for not knowing. It opens the door for curiosity and willingness to think differently about challenges.

AFI: One of our principles for 21st-century local government is to begin and end with data. Can you talk about an instance where you discovered something that you did not realize was a challenge but then were instantly able to take action because of data?

Tom: First, I think you have to have the capability and skills to use that data, but not solely rely on that. The example I'll give is a partnership in Durham called the DREAM program – the Durham Expungement and Restoration program.

For many years, Durham was continually challenged with issues of crimes and gangs. Individuals would say things like, "I just need a job. If I could get a job, I could get out of this life of crime." We put many initiatives and small-scale programs in place to help those involved in the justice system turn their lives around. But this was challenging and not very scalable.

We started down a new path. One of the first things we did was hire a couple of ex-offenders to interview these individuals. To really understand their challenges instead of assuming their challenges based on data. What came out of that were a lot of comments like, "I don't have a driver's license. I have a suspended driver's license. I can't get a job because I don't have a driver's license."

We started digging deeper, and that's when we took the anecdotal data and transformed it into analytical data. We found that many Durham residents involved in the criminal justice system still had issues like revoked driver's licenses because of unpaid fines and fees, anywhere from $50 to a couple hundred dollars, some of which were 15-20 years old. As we started to go down this path, we realized our system tracking fees and fines had some issues.

So we formed the most collaborative partnership I've ever been part of in my 40+ years of working in local government. It included local social services, the district attorney, the judicial system, Duke University, and many others. The bottom line is that it's been about 18 months, and tens of thousands of driver's licenses have now been restored because those fines and feeds were expunged or waived.

A lot of great work has been completed, and the program is a national model. Many communities across the country have been to Durham to learn how we did this massive collaboration between the criminal justice system, state government, and the city government. The interesting thing to me was that we started down a path of wanting to figure out how to get people jobs. It really wasn't a traditional city function. Still, because we were in a place of identifiable data and collaboration, we could really figure out a way to create change.

Want to hear even more from Tom Bonfield? Check out the Innovator's Journey podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

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