50 Cities. 10 Serious(ish) Lessons.

So, I traveled this year. A lot. And I'm grateful.

As a local government innovation and high-performance government coach, trainer and speaker, I had the great honor of experiencing 50 communities in 2019 so far, so I took some time to reflect on what I've observed and encountered. Call it 40,000 frequent flyer miles worth of lessons in a thousands words. So here's a few things I learned along the way this year...for good, ill or obvious:

1)     Not all barbecue is created equal. I eat it everywhere I go. Kansas and Texas straight up crush it. Sorry South Carolina and Tennessee, you got beat. Iowans, Virginians and Wisconsinites, I weep for you.

2)     Everyone is struggling with the trust deficit between residents and government. Residents are afraid of government corruption (#1 fear in America), and have become largely apathetic to, and fearful of, their local government. What it does and its impact--until it affects them personally. This is incredibly damaging. Because of this general apathy, residents are often ill-suited to understand the complexity of issues at play when it counts, and governments across the US are struggling to engage their residents in the right ways. Direct mailers are expensive and only modestly effective, social media gets swarmed by single-issue trolls or political activists, and public meetings get mired in contentious debate. Clarity, storytelling, infographics, guerilla marketing and inventive engagement techniques are part of the answer, but there is a lot missing in this equation that needs to be addressed before it gets better. Don't have the answers yet, but the struggle is real for all of us, residents and local gov leaders alike. Just wanted you to know you're not alone.

3)     Problems are similar in communities across the country, but the right solutions are very different. Many communities deal with issues like affordable housing, equity, homelessness and infrastructure, to name a few, but the manifestation of these issues is very different geographically and demographically. Solutions are not one-size-fits-all, and data is the start of that discussion. Don’t substitute “anecdata” (“I feel like the homeless problem is getting worse”) for real data. The stress being put your infrastructure through deferred maintenance, or your shrinking affordable housing systems, can be radically different than the community next door, or across the country. Which means solutions must adapt to geographic and demographic realities, and data helps drive that. Start measuring now and explore customizations that meet your communities' needs better as time goes on.

4)     Most local government employees are just as frustrated with bureaucracy as the residents. And there were people (usually many) in every organization I visited with this year that are ready and capable of making change. But sometimes we can’t get out of our own way. Some communities just need some training and coaching on how to make and manage change—and these communities that invest in training and development tend to have more positive organizational cultures and more engaged employees. But many times real the issue is fear. The fear of being fired by a boss that is biding his or her time until retirement, being attacked personally by an angry citizen, getting burned by corrosive council politics, or vilified via local or social media. Enacting policies and protections for employees willing to take risks is critical to ending the bureaucracide (death by 10,000 paper cuts). Oh, side note to the citizens that say “I pay your salary”, I did the math: you paid for about 43 seconds of my time, so to all my local gov brothers and sisters out there, cut the abusive ones off when the clock runs out. You don’t have to take that shit. Haters gonna hate.

5)     Consensus is a politician’s favorite phrase and a fool’s errand. “Agreement or accord,” the definition of consensus, is not possible on even the most obvious of topics. We can’t even get consensus that the earth is round in this world of fake news and alternative facts. So you'll never win universal popularity with a project that is necessary, but negatively impacts residents in their back yard. When local government’s design public input processes pursuing consensus, the processes can take far too long and almost never achieve the end goal—further frustrating the community. Instead, effective local governments typically operate more with consent, or “no significant objection,” to move forward. These processes are less time and resource intensive, and more thoughtful in the right ways when engaging the public. And yes, you must engage the public or they will engage you. This preference of consent over consensus also makes sense when you consider the public's general apathy, and single-issue engagement means that many residents don’t understand the nuances of the issues at play—nor do they want to in many cases. And yes, I realize this is against public sentiment, but it’s just true in my experience.

6)     The future does not look like the past and some communities are far better at adjusting to this than others. Beyond just visiting communities, I read and research local government plans, trends, news and projects nationally. It's part of the gig. I can't tell you how many communities across the country want to be “the community of choice for work, live and play.” Great. Just like the one next door and Anytown, USA. It's okay to be frustrated by this lack of vision. And okay to change it. And I've encountered a few communities that believe that their previous success is an indicator of their future success and use that as an insulation against change. Because we were award-winning we must know something that others don't so there's no need to change the formula, or "the way we've always done it." Just a head’s up, but your awards are collecting dust in the lobby of your City Hall, so use those successes to advance the future, not cement the past. Those that are leaning in to a new paradigm are rejecting the way we’ve always done it, and embracing the wild unknown with new ideas and experiments—which will lead them to become the future community of choice for work, live and play—without ever needing to say it.

7)     There’s a big difference between electability and the ability to govern. Some communities are better at preparing their new elected officials for governance than others—and the results are as expected. Spend time educating your candidates and newly elected leaders on principles of good governance and decorum before it’s an issue. It's important.

8)     Phones are a problem for everyone. People being more connected to their phones than the people in the room is a struggle in most communities I visit. It is important to address this head’s on and develop expectations about how phones are used in meetings—or aren’t. In addition, if you aren’t offering mobile friendly services to your residents, you’re already missing the boat.

9)     So are meetings. People default to hour-long meetings instead of shorter 30- or 45-minute meetings, and most people I met this year say they regularly attend meetings that produce little to no value for them. Fixing this is the quickest and easiest way to gain time back and I advocate for this in every community I visit. Cutting 30 minutes from one meeting a week will save you 26 hours a year. Don’t say you don’t have time. Prioritize differently and encourage others to do the same. Microsoft recently went to 4-day work weeks and saw a huge uptick in productivity—and shortened meetings was one of the biggest factors in that success.

10)  A killer or unique park leaves me with a positive view of the community—especially a great disc golf course. And a great IPA. And I seek them out when booking engagements and traveling for pleasure. Just sayin'. What’s your community’s must-do experience?

These thoughts are just meant to tickle the ivories of your brain and see if there are one or two things you can do—or stop doing—to make yourself, and your community even more successful. I work with local governments because their work is meaningful, powerful, and often thankless. Well, I am thankful. The serenity prayer teaches us to accept the things we cannot change, and I say it’s time to change the things we cannot accept. Yes we can. Team Us. 


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