If you have tried something for a couple of decades and it is not working then you should try something else. I am not speaking about our form of local government (council/manager, strong mayor, etc) but rather the way we do our work regardless of the form.
My hypothesis is that the local government model is not working and we need to change that model.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]As local government officials, we don’t want to lose our control over solving problems, think we have the right answers and accept the belief that we must fix everything.[/pullquote]
This hypothesis is based on my 24 years of experience as a city manager and my continuing work with local government as a trainer and consultant over the last 8 years. Being removed from the day-to-day stress of managing a city provided me the time to reflect and learn from my experiences.
The objective of this article is to describe the existing model and propose a different, more effective one.
Existing Model: Bitch and Fix
Unfortunately, most of us operate under the “bitch and fix” model. The residents get to gripe and local government believes we must fix the issue. Local government and residents are caught in this model even though neither likes it. Although neither groups particularly likes the model, each group gets enough out of this model to prevent changing it.
As local government officials, we don’t want to lose our control over solving problems, think we have the right answers and accept the belief that we must fix everything.
Many residents are not willing to accept their share of responsibility and accountability for the quality of life of their neighborhood. As a result, their behavior is to complain about issues.
We are in this dance together. We must change the music and the steps since we can’t change our partners. I believe it is the responsibility of local government to initiate this change. Let’s break the existing model down into 3 components: Assumptions, Processes and Attitudes. Then, let’s compare it to the new model: Partnerships.
Assumptions under the Existing Model: We tend to make the following assumptions:
Is responsible for the quality of life in a city or county
Must solve people’s problems
Requires little of residents
Are elected to fix all problems
Act and feel like they should be treated as customers
Make all the above happen
Decision-Making Process under the Existing Model: Nearly all decisions affecting residents are made by staff and elected officials. We talk about engaging residents; however, we most often approach residents with the end decision in mind and try to convince them to accept it. Local government has a defined mindset about how decisions need to be made:
Staff: They have the expertise and data to solve all problems.
Elected Official: They were elected to make all decisions and be the “decider”.
Residents: They don’t have the expertise, time or persistence to solve problems. If we involve the public, then we can’t control them. The same people show up to a meeting, which often turns into chaos.
Attitudes under the Existing Model: We have a very negative view of the public. When I conduct civic engagement training for professional managers and elected officials in local government, I ask participants to shout out the first adjective that pops into their head when they hear the word “public”.
Overwhelmingly and in every session, managers consistently describe the public with negative adjectives about 80% of the time. Elected officials describe the public with negative adjectives 70% of the time. Some of the common negative adjectives I hear about the public are: uninformed, not interested, entitled, rude, NIMBY driven and blames others. There are plenty of studies that show that the public also has negative images of government employees.
This deep-seated negative attitude about the public directly and adversely impacts the way we engage the public, solve problems and make decisions.
Conclusion: The existing model described above does not work well. Our problems today are more “wicked” and complex so we must consider alternatives. We have less revenue and fewer resources with the same high level of expectation from our residents but our model has not changed. When we were resource rich, we could compensate for a broken model. We cannot afford to do that anymore.
New Model: Partnership with Residents
The difficult challenges that local government face will only be solved in partnership with residents acting like citizens. Residents must assist government to develop solutions to such problems as crime, gangs, drugs, failing schools, and homelessness. We need to partner with residents in both identifying alternatives and in implementing solutions. Without active involvement by residents, the problems mentioned above will never be solved solely by government.
This model does not mean to imply that we expect residents to help government pave our streets, trim our trees or hire our employees.
Different Assumptions under the New Model: We need to make these different assumptions:
Can’t solve all problems alone and never could
Are partially (but not completely) responsible for the quality of life
Set priorities and allocate resources for the most pressing issues
Need to act more as citizens and less like customers
Must take shared responsibility for the quality of life in their neighborhood
Facilitate cooperative problem solving rather than always solving problems themselves
Different Decision-Making Process under the New Model: If we are going to form an effective partnership with residents, we must build strong and successful relationships. Relationship building happens in two ways. First, we must help neighbors build relationships with each other. Second, local government must develop strong relationships with neighborhoods.
We in local government must openly and effectively engage our citizens. This does not and cannot happen at council or commission meetings. So what are the new roles and mindsets of the various parties in the new decision making process?
Doesn’t have all the expertise or correct answers. Combining staff’s expertise with citizen’s expertise will yield better decisions.
For the really challenging problems, establish a collaborative problem solving process that involves a partnership with residents. within the legislative body’s broad policies, limits and boundaries
Take responsibility to cooperatively work with staff to solve problems.
Facilitate problem solving. Do not always solve the problem yourself.
Different Attitudes under the New Model: Studies have proven that we can’t permanently change a long-term behavior without first changing our attitude. For example, quitting smoking or losing weight does not happen without a change in attitude we have around those issues.
We need to develop a more positive attitude of the public. We need to understand that our residents:
Have skills and expertise
Are smarter than we give them credit for
Will become involved and develop creative solutions if engaged correctly
Can become a valuable partner, not your enemy
How Will We Change to the New Model?
Change will not be easy. We in local government needs to change our attitudes, roles and assumptions and must learn new leadership skills.
Bitch and Fix Model (Public as necessary evil) Partnership Model (Public as partner)
Resident as Customer Resident as Citizen
City as the sole Decider Civic Engagement to reach major decisions
Government Centric Issue Centric
Service Delivery as the sole focus Building Community with Service as the focus
Partnership Model: The Partnership Model has many positive outcomes and benefits for residents and local government alike:
Provides a positive outlet for the energy and talents of the public to help solve problems,
Rids local government of ways of thinking and behaving that are ineffective,
Reduces the stress and anxiety of professional managers and elected officials by developing a cooperative problem solving process,
Makes residents positive stewards of their own neighborhoods,
Unleashes enormous potential for local government.
Builds and strengthens the community
Local government leaders must learn the leadership skills of civic engagement and community building.
Residents as Citizens not Customers: Customers tend to behave in similar ways. They name, blame, complain and/or find fault. Customers think in terms of “I” or “Me”, feel entitled and demand someone else solve their problem. Customers don’t make good partners because they don’t feel it is their responsibility to help government solve tough problems. As a result, it is difficult to engage them.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Even though our residents are sometimes customers, they are primarily citizens with a shared responsibility to help government solve tough problems.[/pullquote]
Think of yourself in a store when you have not received the help you needed. We often name, blame, complain and/or find fault. We do not think about the concerns of other customers and we demand someone solve our problem.
Citizens act quite differently. They want to solve problems. Citizens understand that they are partially responsible and accountable for the safety and quality of life of their neighborhood. Citizens make good partners and are much easier to engage.
We must treat our residents as citizens and expect them to share responsibility for the quality of their neighborhood. Even though our residents are sometimes customers, they are primarily citizens with a shared responsibility to help government solve tough problems.
Civic Engagement Leadership Skills: Civic engagement is the skill of designing and facilitating an effective civic engagement process. Civic engagement requires asking quality questions of citizens and engaging them in an open and productive discussion while local government listens and learns. It is another key tool in the Leadership toolbox.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Local government cannot do successful civic engagement if we continue to hold an 80% negative image of the public. [/pullquote]
Civic engagement is not about having more meetings. It is not about getting more people to attend unsuccessful meetings. Civic engagement cannot and will not happen at regular council or commission meetings. It happens outside those meetings and if done correctly make those meetings more effective.
Civic engagement is not something local government needs to do on most issues. Civic engagement is most useful when applied to problems:
Fraught with strong values or emotions
Needing community support, or,
That have more than one right answer.
Local government cannot do successful civic engagement if we continue to hold an 80% negative image of the public. Civic engagement can take place using various forums such as traditional meetings, online discussions, a “market place of ideas” and design charrette. There are several online applications that can be helpful such as Peak Democracy, MindMixer and UserVoice. Personally, I have found Peak Democracy the best on-line platform for civil discussion.
More information on the civic engagement process can be found in ICMA InFocus Report: How Civic Engagement Transforms Community Relationships (Volume 4/ number 4 2011).
Community Building Leadership Skills: Local government’s most important infrastructure is their community. The potential that resides in our community is huge. Without a strong partnership and involvement of our citizens, local government will never solve the tough problems of gangs, drugs, crime, failing school, homelessness, lack of affordable housing and child obesity.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The public is frustrated with being left out. Let’s quit beating our head against the old model and try the partnership model.[/pullquote]
Based on my city manager experience in Redwood City, Ca, community building must start at the neighborhood level. A national study showed that a majority of our residents don’t know 50% of their neighbors.
Neighbors must get to know their neighbors. When residents know their neighbors, they become more informed and involved. When they are more informed and involved, they become more committed to their neighborhood. When they are more committed to their neighborhood, they take pride in their neighborhood. As residents take pride in their neighborhood, they are more willing to be engaged and help make their neighborhood stronger and safer.
Once residents connect their neighbors, they are better able to then connect with local government. Local government can encourage building community by playing four important roles: Raising Consciousness, Being a Catalyst, Acting as a Convener, Becoming a Facilitator. Nextdoor, Front Porch Forum, EveryBlock and rBlock are websites used by neighbors to stay connected. Nextdoor is by far the largest and used by most local governments.
Additional information about community building can be found in ICMA I.Q. Report: Community Building: How to Do It, Why It Matters (Volume 41/ number 4 2009).
We are spending enormous time and energy on a model that does not work well. We are frustrated and tired of being yelled at, criticized and blamed. The public is frustrated with being left out. Let’s quit beating our head against the old model and try the partnership model.
Of course, the change will be difficult. We have limited resources, we must learn new roles and skills and we must ask our residents to spend some of their precious time helping local government.
Moving to the new model will require all of us to change: elected officials, professional managers and residents. We will all be challenged. Elected Officials will need to open the decision making process to residents. Professional managers will need to relax our need to be in control and rethink the way we always reach decisions. Residents will need to take some responsibility for the quality of life of their neighborhood and their city.
Let’s all start this journey.