Commentary : County’s Problems Are Broader Than the Vision of Any of Its Leaders

<i> Joseph W. McGuire is a professor in the Graduate School of Management at UC Irvine. </i>

Quality time is coming to an end in Orange County. The side-effects of rapid growth--air pollution, traffic congestion, limited housing, income maldistribution, waste disposal, inadequate supplies of water, education and health service problems--loom ominously over all, and threaten to become increasingly more severe in the 1990s.

Although these issues, and their urgency, are widely recognized in the county, there is little unanimity as to how to deal with most of them as the 1980s end. The inability to find generally acceptable solutions to substantial problems stems in large part from the immature industrial and governmental structures of Orange County. Present business and government organizations are poorly designed to formulate and implement the strategies that the county will need to follow in the 1990s to maintain its quality of life.

The corporate population of Orange County is dominated by medium-sized or smaller companies. There are few giant enterprises headquartered between Anaheim and San Clemente. The majority of existing Orange County firms place heavy demands upon their top executives. Some of these companies are growing rapidly, some are in intensely competitive industries, others are headed by technicians who are struggling to learn managerial skills to solve problems that their lack of skills has caused, and still others are entrepreneurial. These examples, which in their totality represent much of the county’s business universe, require executives who must, of necessity, devote the great bulk of their time and energy to the success of the enterprise. Most companies in the county simply do not have the managerial infrastructure that will permit top executives the freedom for visionary public participation.

Furthermore, the public policy ambitions of executives of small- and medium- sized businesses grow out of the Chamber of Commerce-Rotary-Kiwanis concepts of service. These concepts are laudable but basically limited in scope and imagination. Typically, they are concerned with helping the community, forwarding local charitable endeavors, and serving member interests. Visionary large-scale projects or structural changes of substantial magnitude do not ordinarily emerge from the service organization milieu.


Nor, in Orange County in this decade, will traditional business political contributions help much to ease the mounting burdens on the quality of life.

There are simply too many politicians, too many contributors, too many incumbents at all levels. The diffuse and scattered nature of governments throughout the county, the growing importance of simplistic, single-issue groups and ideological fixations on the career consequences of raising taxes and spending money make the current crop of politicians unlikely possessors of the talent, vision and leadership needed to address the major problems of the area--much less to try to solve them.

Most of the problems that currently beset Orange County began with vision at the state level. There would be no Orange County as we know it today without the vision of those few remarkable persons who brought water, freeways, school systems and public universities to the region.

However, California has not conceived any new, viable, grandiose plans for perhaps 20 years--not since the Coastal Zone and Medi-Cal were created; and neither recent governors nor legislators have shown that they have the interest or ability to act as boldly and innovatively as did their predecessors.

As Orange County moves into the 1990s, then, it is faced with huge problems and poorly formulated solutions. Furthermore, it is not clear where imaginative and workable solutions will come from.

The business community is preoccupied with the conduct of its business, and may not, in any case, have the talent and foresight needed to advance and promote the scale of solutions needed.

Government, both on the state level and in Orange County, has given no sign that it is capable of treating most of the major problems that beset the area.

In this bleak picture, there may be a few hopeful signs. First, much more is known about strategy and structure today than in past decades. We do know how to organize to consider large-scale projects. Second, it does not take large numbers of real leaders to institute a search for real solutions.


As Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, once wrote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This leadership should come primarily from thoughtful, committed Orange County executives. Finally, there still is time to lift the smog, to free the roads and to build a better future for Orange County, but action must start soon.