Humanism in Local Government

Humanism in Local Government

Kyle Knott, LinkedIn & Twitterhas worked at Village of Mukwonago, Wisconsin, Elk Grove Township, Illinois, and DeKalb County Business Incubator. 


My first post was about the concept of professionalism. I wanted to convey that, at its core, professionalism calls for an abandonment of individuality to conform to a culture. This culture stresses the necessity of responsibility, accountability, and seriousness of service. Many take it on, perhaps, because they must be perceived as credible leaders who can carry out the mandates of democracy in an effective, efficient, and non-biased manner… or it could be just because they think that is what professionalism is about. Certainly, this has its place in our democracy. As leaders and harbingers of community spirit, we must bear the duties we have with the solemnity that it requires.

In this post, I want to highlight a value often overlooked in local government and in life – humanism. In other words, a recognition of the humanity in others. This is not only important to recognize but is something that must be cultivated. To be a humanist local government employee means to nourish a sense in ourselves and in our organizations that people are remarkable. They are creators, believers, lovers, feelers, and individuals struggling in their unique ways just like us. It is to allow a bit of the coldness of bureaucracy to be relinquished to allow the world to be a little better.

It’s what’s implied when we talk about concepts like user-centric design, the new public service, or many tropes on organizational improvement like effective communication and team building.

What does a cultivating humanism look like?

It looks a whole lot like:

  • Actively listening to the community and the needs of our employees
  • Trying hard to take on their perspective to fully appreciate their concerns
  • Encouraging mutual understanding between community leaders and team members
  • Validating others’ feelings
  • Allowing others to be themselves without judgement as long as they’re doing their jobs

For instance, let’s imagine for a moment that you’re a city manager, and your biggest concern is bringing new development into the community. It has a lot of blight and things have been stagnant for a long time. You start working on the issue by implementing a TIF district and partnering with some downtown business owners to develop a committee to create a long-term strategy for the area.

You start to succeed. You’re attracting developers to your new district, planning new streetscaping and facade improvements in the downtown, and improving local infrastructure. However, the people in the community start fearing these impending changes. To them, they represent a threat to the way of life they’ve grown accustomed to.

A member of the community approaches you. She’s the owner of a florist shop downtown.

She tells you, “I’m worried that these changes downtown will soon attract more businesses and increase property values. Me and my friends who have been here for years are worried that we’ll go out of business. Some of us are already barely getting by”.

There are many ways to handle this situation. One approach is to say something like “I understand your concern. However, this city has to move forward if we’re going to compete long-term. It’s unfortunate about your business. Although I have a responsibility to ensure this community’s success, and these things have to be done. If you have a problem with it, contact your elected officials and show up to public hearings.”

This seems like a decent response. It was professional, reasonable, and you suggested ways to do something about the issue. But it was inhumane. There was no empathy. This is a person’s life, her friends’ lives, and the community they grew up in, and she deserves more.

A better, more humanist approach would be to say something like “I’m really sorry that you all are feeling pressure from the recent developments, and your concerns are totally understandable. Has there been anything in particular that has worried you? Have your friends told you stories about how they’re being impacted in particular? What are some different ways you and the people you know would like to see the community improve?”

After hearing her out, you can tell her that you appreciate her comments and empathize with her concerns. You might even repeat what she initially said so she knows that she was really listened to by saying something like “I know that this is your livelihoods, and change can be scary because this is your home – it’s what you know”. Then, you can conclude by offering your card, suggest ways to get involved, and let her know that you’ll do what you can to help her by offering access to business consultants or looking into low-interest financing through other agencies so she and others like her can make improvements and stay competitive.

Another example might involve an office worker approaching you and telling you that they feel in the dark about what’s happening in the the organization. They say, “I know I just handle permit processing and licensing, but people ask me questions and as a member of this organization I think I should have some idea of what’s going on.”

A less humanist manager or director might say something like “I get what you’re saying, but your position doesn’t demand that you know everything that’s going on. I wish there was more I could do it help you, but it’s unfortunately not the nature of the position.” To be sure, this is also a reasonable response. Your job is demanding. You’re constantly called upon to think big picture, clarify and focus strategies, and put out fires like sudden important position vacancies.

Though, you might also try to see things from their point of view. This worker has a loving significant other and two beautiful kids. They work for the city in a part-time position because they need the extra income to get by, and underneath their usually happy disposition it isn’t hard to imagine someone who wished they went to college, someone who feels in some small way like they failed at life – and this is partly because they feel just like a cog in a bureaucratic machine in which they know they play a very small part.

So, you hear them out. You put yourself in their shoes, and you say, “I appreciate you letting me know. Even though you only handle permitting and licensing, I still know that you’re an important member of our team, and I want you feel like you’re valuable to our mission to serve this great community – because you really are. Look, I am going to be honest with you. Public works just lost a member, and they’ve been working overtime for the past two weeks and are barely getting to see their families. At the same time, I am in the process of negotiating a really important deal with an outside developer for our new business park that’s consuming all my time. But in the near future I will work on finding a new way to help you stay informed about what’s going on. Whether that’s a weekly e-blast, an internal project tracking sheet, or some other solution. I’ll do what I can see your issue addressed, just bear with me. In the meantime, if you come up with any ideas yourself, don’t hesitate to send them my way”.

It feels like this is somewhat radical. As leaders in local government, we are called to be the steady hand that keeps organizations focused on outcomes, the technocrat skilled in decision making and advising, and therefore, the stoic. In other words, if we let ourselves be truly seen or to truly allow others to be heard, we in some way are leading weakly.

However, it is possible to live in a world where we can be the credible structural change agent, the person who can be trusted with responsibility, the good decision maker and guider of organizations, and the authentic humanist.

If we can create an appreciation for this in our communities and our organizations, we can:

  • Create stronger community bonds by breaking down barriers of communication
  • Deepen relationships with partners and key leaders that can lead to new initiatives and better leadership
  • Enjoy a more fun, happy, and productive staff because they feel good and a part of the mission
  • Relate more to our residents and make them feel more encouraged to get involved, which improves our democracy
  • Develop better social media and engagement strategies that help your policies be understood.