This is a new monthly blog by AJ Fawver, the Planning Director in Amarillo, Texas. She’ll share her perspectives on land use, planning, and community development in this series. Learn more about AJ from her GovLove interview!
- Planning & Shaping Cities
- The Scoop on Comp, Master, General, Strategic, Vision Plans
- The Lowdown on Multimodal Transportation
If you find yourself working in a local government organization, chances are high that you – or at least your team – periodically prepare, and at times, present, items for action to your respective legislative body.
That body may be called any number of things. A city council, town council, board of aldermen, town board, city commission, or commissioners court, perhaps. The name is far less important than the collective function of that group; to set priorities, make policy decisions, approve a budget, and represent citizens, among others.
In some towns and cities, these positions carry a salary. In others, a small stipend is received. In still others, it is strictly voluntary. They may or may not receive benefits. Bottom line? Nobody is doing this to get rich.
The next complication is this – as a local government employee, we see the composition of our legislative bodies change over time due to term lengths and limitations. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a reality we must recognize and be strategic about.
Whether term limits are two years or four, for a finite period of time, your submittal of items for consideration and feedback will be heard by the existing configuration of individuals your community has elected.
So, here’s the thing – if we really want to be effective in planning and shaping our cities, we must be mindful not to fall into the trap of seeing this body as one that simply says yes or no to the things we take forward for their consideration.
We must see them as important partners in that effort and be the best resources to them in their terms that we can be, whether it be directly or indirectly (depending on your organizational structure and policies on such).
I would assert that one aspect of being an emerging leader in local government is bringing to the table a dynamic approach to helping elected officials affect change. If your organization isn’t helping prepare them for the complex work they are taking on, speak up. It’s an essential step.
Over the years, we have all likely sat through dozens of sessions intended as orientation sessions, retreats, and/or visioning workshops, at which various departments are requested to help new members understand their role; other times, it is intended to introduce a new member of the executive team to the body, and hear about their plans for a department.
While it may feel like an obligation to recite statistics, show the organizational chart, and read off a list of job duties housed within the department – a literal “show and tell” – it is a huge opportunity to do much more.
It is an occasion to spark thought, to establish rapport, to express how your team can be a resource to these decision makers.
Here are some points I urge you to consider, should you have the opportunity to help a supervisor prepare, or even deliver yourself, such a presentation. These are widely applicable to any subject area, not just intended for the city planning departments who may be reading.
- Put yourself in their shoes. If you were a council member, for example, what would you need to know about the functions of this department? Reach out to decision makers you have worked with in the past, and get some insights. I find it extremely helpful to pose the question, “if you had it all to do again, what do you wish you had known about this department from the beginning?”
- Explore how you can help them perform at their best. Clearly explain your role in the process of governance. What tools does your department have that can help decision makers reach a conclusion on something under consideration? For example, what steps do you take to stay current with best practices? Do you have the tools to perform spatial analysis through GIS? Do you have the capabilities to monitor policy effectiveness, or perform research? What guiding documents do they need to be aware of?
- Help them anticipate questions. We all know at the front lines of the organization, even deep into the management structure, what types of questions elected officials will often encounter from the public. Discuss these frequently asked questions. Consider providing them with a short primer or handout that encapsulates talking points they will find helpful. Assist them in feeling prepared for these tough queries. They will appreciate it.
- Demystify your area of expertise and make it relatable. Many decision makers have never worked in local government, but have a strong desire to help better their community. As such, realize that their exposure to your area of emphasis may be limited. Just as with any boss you have ever worked for, they do not need the intricate details that you are there to handle. They need the bottom line. You’re the subject matter expert – frame it in a way that allows them to understand your goals and charge without getting into the weeds. Make it relatable to them so that they can be a representative of sorts for you as they undoubtedly interact with different citizens – and perhaps more – than you have the opportunity to.
- Relate your work to the vision, and be candid. Typically, every legislative body will have a visioning session, or will have stated goals or priorities. Look for these in the city’s comprehensive plan, a strategic plan, or sometimes, even the adopted budget. These representatives need to know how you and the work of your team fit into the overall execution. It is important to address the reality that policy making can be an exercise in adopting consensus documents that further the vision, but may be controversial; alternately, it can be an exercise in approving a compromise document that is undisputed, but hinders the community’s progress in implementing the vision. You are there to help them ascertain how it fits in – or doesn’t.
- Build trust. Recommendations are only as good as the integrity of those recommendations. Give them a glimpse of the effort that goes into formulating a recommendation. Create a foundation of trust by summarizing the factors you consider. Commit to honesty in presenting those. Explain how factors like quality of life, equity, economic development, or administration relate to the lens through which you see things. They will have a greater appreciation for recommendations you bring forward in the future.
By keeping these things in mind, your interaction with key decision makers can be made more effective. It can also create the kind of rapport necessary to endure complex endeavors and leverage positive change. Taking the time to create and maintain this foundation can make or break the effectiveness of your partnership with elected officials. Plan accordingly!
Questions? Want to get in touch with AJ?