360 Review with Della Rucker, Managing Editor of EngagingCities

Who doesn’t love a good ol’ fashioned performance review? ELGL loves them so much that we’re embarking on a “360 Review of Local Government.” We’re going to evaluate every single inch of the local government arena by talking to ourselves (a.k.a: other local government professionals), tech companies, journalists, professors, and anyone else who hasn’t blocked our email address.

Background Check

Della Rucker has consulted, written and trained people to create strategies for economic revitalization and enable meaningful public participation using low-tech and high tech tools. Della is one of about 10 persons in the United States to hold the industry-standard professional certifications in both planning (AICP) and economic development (CEcD).

Della is the author of  Crowdsourcing Wisdom: A guide to a guide to doing public meetings that actually make your community better and The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help. She is also the author of the upcoming book Online Public Engagement, from Routledge Press. Della also serves as the Managing Editor of EngagingCities, an online magazine that focuses on the intersection between internet technologies and community engagement,with more than 30,000 readers worldwide.

The Evaluator

Della Rucker, AICP, CEcD

Connect: LinkedIn and Twitter

What I’m doing:

Trying to figure out new ways to instigate, foster, and support systemic change in how local economies and communities work.

What I’m proud of:

Keeping body and soul together during the working parent years. Also, getting a chance to help good communities and good local government people make meaningful change in the places they care about.

What I’m thinking:

How can people who want to make change, make change faster and better?

What I’m listening to:

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The Killers, per usual. :-). When it’s not The Killers, it’s usually Walk the Moon, Bleachers, Fun with an occasional dash of anything else. I used to be much more of an intellectual music listener, but these days I mostly want music that hypes me up and makes me feel like I can charge the barricades!

What I’m trying to read:

Glaser’s Triumph of the City, which was given to me by the Downtown Project in Las Vegas. They’re one of the most interesting revitalization project around, and this book is the big piece of their thinking, so I’m trying to read it. But I’m in the middle and I’m kind of bored. :-).  After this, it’s on to Zingerman’s The Lapsed Anarchist’s Guide to Being a Good Leader.

What I’m watching:

Mostly TED talks, Mythbusters, and random things on YouTube.

What I’m afraid of:

That there might not be enough people in local government and local communities who want to find new ways of doing things and are willing to take a few risks to do so. The existence of ELGL gives me a little more hope on that front 🙂

What I’m missing:

My dad, who has been gone for over a dozen years. He was always interested in making communities better, and he would have loved to have been one of your crazy devoted volunteers in his retired years.

What I think of the Apple watch:

I had my last Apple in about 1999, so I’m not the market. & I got tired of wearing watches a long time ago 🙂

What I want to know from you:

What do you all need to do your innovating and emerging better?  What information?  What kinds of events or spaces? What technology? What connections to what other kinds of smart people?

The Evaluation

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Best part of working in the local government arena. Most frustrating?

Best part: when you get to see people who care about a community begin to figure out that they can truly make a difference and they start doing it.

Most frustrating: the degree of frustration and burn out among good people who are trying to improve local government and feel alone, isolated, unsupported.

Describe the current state of local government.

Grade? Varies widely, but overall… C.

We’ve seen some improvements in things like data management, budget management, but we’re often failing badly at doing meaningful things to improve local environments, and most of the ways that we handle “public engagement” haven’t substantially changed since the 1900s. And they really, really need to, because as people and societies we have changed a whole, whole lot.

Give us three areas in which local government is succeeding.

  • Sustainable infrastructure–passive storm water detention, anaerobic digesters, passive energy construction permitting, etc. ( much left to do, but making progress)
  • Local-scale transportation options– bike infrastructure, importance of sidewalks, complete streets ( ditto)
  • Opening data– data portals, budget transparency, etc ( ditto ditto)

Give us three areas in which local government needs improvement.

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  • Economic development– 98% of communities are just not going to win the big business recruitments that the ED people drool over.  They just don’t exist at the size and the numbers that they used to.  Real economic growth– jobs, tax base, whatever– will come from within much, much more so than from without.  And that takes very different work, different investments, different uses of staff time.  And a lot of city staffers don’t want to admit that yet, because they don’t know how to do that new work and suspect that they don’t have the time/staff and skills to do it.  That can change, and the communities that are figuring out how to do that are increasingly the ones who we all point to as the success stories.
  • Civic Infrastructure- the ability and capacity of people within a community to play an active role in making their place they way they want it to be.  Too often, we’ve unintentionally taught them to be passive– to wait for government to fix things, to assume that they can’t make a difference.  This is starting to change, in pockets, in interesting ways, but it’s way too common, and those are the communities that never seen to be able to get it together.
  • Public Engagement, public participation, public meetings. No matter the purpose or the subject, with rare exceptions, these suck.  They’re inconvenient, uncomfortable, time-wasting, confrontational, un-constructive, fear-inducing, anxiety-inducing…. And that’s just how the public feels, let alone the local government staff and officials who have to do them and get nothing useful out of them  The truly stupid thing is that all of this is by no means necessary… It’s just that no one has shown us that there are other options.  You can do the legally necessary things and have much more productive public engagement– we just have to think a little about how we do it.

For local government, was there any good that came from the Great Recession?

In some communities, yes.  Some communities figured out how to build more productive collaborations, improved technology, learned to experiment before making big investments, etc. But too many just hunkered down and went right back to the old ways when the funding got a little easier.

Evaluate whether local government is prepared for the ongoing wave of retirements. What could we do to better prepare?

Nope, although where I am it seems like it’s been less traumatic then expected because, so far, the fact that some people lost a lot of money in the recession means that the retirements have been more spread out than expected.

Other people know a lot more about this than I do, but I’d say a crucial piece is for communities to welcome innovation and experimenting, rather than slapping hands if something doesn’t work right.  The cities that have placed an emphasis on supporting and enabling people to try new solutions seem from where I sit to be having more luck getting good staff.  People who want to go into public service want to fix things, to make a difference, so it would seem that one of the most important ways to retain them is to enable them to fulfill that deep personal purpose.

In your opinion, does local government have a lack of diversity in its workforce?

Usually.  In addition to gender and race and age diversity, which are all so essential that it’s bewildering to me that we’re still talking about it, diversity of background is also important.  Places that only hire from within their own community tend to have the most trouble with unconstructive group think.

“Innovation” is a trendy word and thrown around a lot in local government. What examples would you point to as government innovation?

For the most profound and meaningful innovation, take a close look at what’s coming out of the City Accelerator at Living Cities.  There’s been coverage in Governing and longer-form, behind the scenes stuff at EngagingCities. It looks at first glance like they’re trying to solve the usual problems, like social services delivery and the like, but what they’re really getting at is, what systems are necessary within a government to enable change, adaptation, etc?  It’s some of the most exciting stuff I’ve seen coming out anywhere.

Evaluate local government’s willingness to embrace new technologies.

For technologies that promise to make work easier and lower costs, often too willing, to the point where the desire to purchase something with great promises sometimes exceeds the ability to evaluate whether the promises and the firms making the promises can actually deliver.  For technologies that break down the old government-governed walls, like open data and online public engagement tools, they’re often not embracing them enough.

Wave a magic wand – what three wishes would you grant local government?

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  • Stop being afraid of residents and start pulling them into the process —  it could be like having your own community think tank, if you open up and create a structured process that pulls people into constructive collaboration and participation.
  • Develop a laser focus on growing the local-based, local-owned, economy, instead of spending all the budget and energy chasing shiny things from Somewhere Else.
  • Elected officials and bosses who are always perfectly well-informed, entirely benevolent, scupulously public-serving and modestly brilliant.  🙂

What question(s) should we ask the next person that completes this questionnaire?

Local government leaders who want to move their communities ahead have to be brave. How do we grow and support that bravery?

Supplemental Reading

360 Reviews