360 Review with Conan Smith, Washtenaw County Commissioner and Michigan Suburbs Alliance

Posted on March 3, 2015

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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.

Conan Smith (LinkedIn and Twitter) was elected to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners effective January 1, 2005. Conan earned his B.A. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Michigan’s Residential College and served as a speech writer on the Democratic staff of the Michigan Speaker of the House. He directed land programs with the Michigan Environmental Council for six years before becoming the executive director at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of city governments focused on intergovernmental cooperation, where he works today.


What I’m Reading: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

What I’m Watching: Black Sails

What I’m Doing: Arguing about the process for selecting a county administrator

What I’m Proud of:  My amazing wife/senator/best friend

What I’m Listening to: Tricksters, Hucksters and Scamps by Amos Lee (I find this disconcertingly biographical)

What I’m Thinking: I should have been an artist

What I’m Afraid of:  Being misunderstood and undervalued

What I’m Missing:  All my close friends and family (it’s lonely at the, ummm, middle)

What I Want to Know From You:  Did you feel guilty that time you sat out the election?



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

I don’t care how very different you are from everyone else in the board room politically, socially, whatever, there isn’t a person in there with you who isn’t coming to the table to make somebody’s life better. We might disagree completely about what that looks like or how to go about it, but underneath there is the very basic human nature of caring for the people around you. The best in local government is sometimes hard to find in that you have to brighten up the light, look under the rug, and parse the dustbunnies, but it’s there: everyone is brought to the table by a little bit of love for their fellow human beings.
Frustration: I have a rich distaste for our first to the post, majority rules electoral and governing processes. You wouldn’t run your family like that: “Billy ran to the kitchen first, so he gets all the food. Or, Miriam and I agree that you should have to sleep outside now, so tough luck.” This process takes a lot of the compassion out of our decision-making and causes us to close our ears to good ideas or valid concerns. We need to learn to make decisions differently if our nation is going to survive another couple hundred years.

Describe the current state of local government. Grade?
GPA 3.2.download (2)
“A” for providing great services.
“C” for addressing root causes of problems.
“B+” for stability and transparency.
Give us three areas in which local government is succeeding.
  • Survival.  I mean, the economy tanked hard and most of us are still around. Whew.
  • Creativity.  That survival wasn’t dumb luck. Most of us found ways to continue delivering decent services under the most dire fiscal conditions.
  • Caring Productivity. In contrast to Congress and many state legislatures, local governments are still deeply connected to the problems people face every day and are actively engaged in helping them.
Give us three areas in which local government needs improvement.
  • Oy, Fragmentation. At least in Michigan, we have too many units of government all doing the same thing. The distinctions between township, city and village have blurred too much. We have to figure out how to optimally use each level and type of government.
  • Thinking About Complex Systems. Q: Do you solve poverty by providing housing, creating jobs, providing education or offering counseling? A: Yes. We need to figure out how to map issues and challenges better so we can design more effective, earlier interventions. This is tough, tough, tough. Our tools and training are totally insufficient.
  • Funding. Yup, it takes money to do things. All things. So let’s get over our fear of taxes and remember that investing together we create stronger, healthier, more sustainable communities.
For local government, was there any good that came from the Great Recession?
  • People didn’t blame us!
  • Some of us learned to be more nimble. All of us learned the meaning and value of structural reform. In good times we didn’t have to adjust quickly to challenges, and we had lots of money. While being lean has been painful, we’ve also learned how to make stone soup: our collaborations with other governments, with business and with the nonprofit community are more robust and more strategic. We need to expand on these successes as the economy recovers.
Evaluate whether local government is prepared for the ongoing wave of retirements. What could it do to prepare?
This is a parochial Michigan perspective, but in no way are we ready for retirements. Almost all of us are carrying substantial unfunded retirement and OPEB liabilities. In many departments there is no real succession plan. We’ve slashed benefits and still pay under-market salaries, so attracting talent is going to be tough. And then the work loads are higher because we haven’t staffed up appropriately. Fiscally, communities need to address the retirement liabilities issue. We also have to rethink the job descriptions of public employees. Public service can and should be both noble and exciting, but we have to break free from old hierarchical molds to create environments where creative new workers will thrive and feel valued.  Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to restore some balance in the compensation packages too.
In your opinion, does local government have a lack of diversity (i.e 13 percent) in its workforce?
Super tough question. For a long time, local government has been a place where equal opportunity and economic mobility meet, so it is very attractive to people who struggle against institutionalized racism and classism in our society. Union benefits and protections helped create a class of workers that was, at its heart, economically and racially diverse. Across the board today though, latinos and asians are woefully underrepresented in local government service. And we see a disturbing segregation of blacks into the lower wage jobs. I suspect that local government is still among the more diverse workplaces in the nation, but we have to be aware that we have more recruiting to do, and we have guard against the tracking and siloing I fear is happening.
I am really proud to be a part of Michigan’s first majority minority county board of commissioners, but there are still big barriers for people of color getting into office. Our diversity is an exception unfortunately. And for women, the bar is set higher still. I’m dismayed to see an actual decline in women in elected office locally. Kudos to the likes of Emily’s List (and we should all mourn the loss of the White House Project) — we need more advocates and institutions dedicated to engaging new female leadership.
“Innovation” is a trendy word and thrown around a lot in local government. What examples would you point to as government innovation?
giphy (1)Local government reinvented innovation when we transformed the synergies of collaboration to let us think outside the box.
I’m less about “innovation” and more about refining toward excellence, but I really do appreciate a bold, new idea if it works.

  • Some of my colleagues, Ed Klobucher and Steve Duchane, just yesterday created an intergovernmental fire authority in two cities that don’t share a border. Very creative!
  • Congressman Dan Kildee, when he was a lowly county serf, devised land banking to protect communities with lots of properties in foreclosure.
  • My brother-in-arms Yousef Rabhi drove through a local ID project to help people who struggle to get state or federal identification to be more secure in our community. This stuff is real gold.
Evaluate local government’s willingness to embrace new technologies.
Rarely an early adopter. Nor should we be. Government’s all about the golden mean: we have to be stable and dependable while simultaneously striving to be better than we were yesterday. Playing with new toys isn’t often appropriate for us because it puts systems at risk. Which is not to say the very bright and capable IT teams shouldn’t encourage us to come into the modern age . . . just that something has to be either a tested tech or else applied where it can’t do any real harm if it fails.
Wave a magic wand – what three wishes would you grant local government?tumblr_mkxa6mWt9P1qg95r7o1_400
  • Mo’ money. Duh.
  • Sexier issues. I want the folks at solid waste to know we love their mojo.
  • Total local control. Is it too much to ask to abolish all other forms of government?
What question(s) should we ask the next person that completes this questionnaire
  • Why should a recent college grad choose local government as a career?
  • What is the most farcical thing your elected board has voted on?
  • How do you feel about wages and benefits in local government?

Supplemental Reading

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