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.
Kevin Knutson (LinkedIn and Twitter) is the Regional Vice President for Management Partners’ eastern office in Cincinnati, Ohio. Kevin has more than twenty years of experience in local government, including ten years in strategic planning, budget, performance measurement, and process improvement and six years in community relations, communications, and citizen engagement. He is recognized as a national expert in local government performance management, long-term financial planning, and communications. He was part of a team that implemented quality management practices in Coral Springs that led to the City being the first local government to earn the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.
Kevin served as interim city manager, assistant city manager, director of the office of management and budget, and director of community relations in Reno, Nevada; and as director of communications and marketing and budget and strategic planning manager for Coral Springs, Florida. He is a recognized as a Credentialed manager by ICMA and was named the City-County Communications and Marketing Association’s 2011 Communicator of the Year.
Your hometown? What is it best known for?
I was born in Joliet, Illinois, which is best known for the Joliet Prison and as the “home” of Jake and Elwood Blues of the Blues Brothers. I grew up in Coral Springs, Florida, and worked for the City for 17 years, which was the first local government to receive the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.
What’s one piece of advice that you wish you had taken?
Back in the summer of 2010, when the iPhone 4 was launched, a friend said “You should buy stock in Apple.” I looked it up and it was like $245 a share. “Too rich for me,” I thought. Dummy.
You mean besides clowns?
Which bands would play at your retirement party?
- The Dandy Warhols
- Foo Fighters
Best holiday gift that you’ve received? Given?
I had always wanted to attend a program at the Harvard Kennedy School and my wife gave me the opportunity as a gift. It was an incredible experience that has really enriched my life and career.
My brother was a musician when he was younger and one year I compiled all the cassettes, CDs, video footage, and other ephemera onto 12 CD-Rs and DVD-Rs, designed covers and wrote liner notes. I package it like a box set. There were things I’d held on to, such as demo and production recordings, that he hadn’t heard in years. It was pretty cool.
Outside of family, who has most influenced your life?
My former City Manager in Coral Springs, Mike Levinson, who gave me opportunities to explore many different aspects of local government and saw my potential before I could. I learned a lot about being a leader from him, particularly in pursuing audacious goals and believing in your people. He first told us that we were going to earn the Baldrige award in the late 90s, years before local governments were even eligible to apply. And we did.
Best part of working in the local government arena. Most frustrating?
Local government provides the services closest to the people—public safety, infrastructure, transportation, utilities, culture and recreation—that directly contribute to our quality of life. To see how your efforts make a meaningful difference in people’s lives is gratifying and makes the frustrating parts all worthwhile. In my current role, I work with many different people in diverse agencies across the nation and am always impressed with the passion local government professionals have for improving their communities.
Because government is a collaborative, public process it can be slow to act and not as precise as we’d sometimes like it to be. It can be frustrating when we miss opportunities or fail to achieve our goals.
Describe the current state of local government. Grade?
I’d give local government an B+. Doing great, but still some areas we can improve.
Give us three areas in which local government is succeeding.
Most local governments have done a remarkable job of absorbing the loss of resources (financial and human) while maintaining core services at pre-recession levels. While this says a lot about the resiliency and dedication of the workforce and leadership, I think it also reveals that we had become somewhat complacent about the way we were providing services and had accumulated wasteful habits. Some of that has been swept away and we’re now more focused on finding and eliminating process waste.
Although we are starting to have a national conversation about policing tactics, which is healthy, I think that public safety, both police and fire, have been very successful over the past twenty years. In general, crime rates have fallen and overall fire loss continues to decline. Our communities are becoming safer.
There has been a tremendous shift toward transparency over the last decade and I think it’s a positive development. It promotes accountability, ethical behavior, trust, and public knowledge. It gives traction to citizen engagement efforts and opens the organization up to new ways of collaborating with private and nonprofit organizations.
Give us three areas in which local government needs improvement.
Even before the recession, investing in infrastructure maintenance was not a visible priority for many jurisdictions, and the loss of resources has only exacerbated the problem. Many jurisdictions do not have sufficient funding to maintain roads, bridges, sewers, water, electrical, parks, and other critical infrastructure systems; and have been deferring investment in favor of funding core services. We are at risk for catastrophic failure and few are aware of the situation, let alone planning to address it.
Similar to infrastructure, many local governments are carrying unfunded liabilities for pensions and OPEB, and the growing wave of baby boomer retirements is going to continue to place strain on agencies that are ill-prepared to deal with it. Recent changes in GASB (Statements 67 and 68) will help shed some light on the issue for pensions, giving elected bodies and the public a clearer picture of the scale of the problem. Improvements in the market are starting to stabilize fund balances and relieving some of the strain, but far too many plans are woefully underfunded.
While there are some excellent examples of innovation and process improvement programs in place around the country, they continue to be the exception, rather than the rule. Local government needs to embrace the need for continuous improvement and learn the tools and strategies that every employee can use to make positive changes. While the very nature of government—the deliberative, public decision-making process and need for accountability—means it will always make decisions more slowly than corporations can, we don’t have to move at a glacial pace.
For local government, was there any good that came from the Great Recession?
To me, the opportunity to find ways to operate more efficiently, providing the same or more services with less resources, was a silver lining. It forced us to re-examine our priorities, assess our operations and processes, move things around, shake things up. It was stressful and a lot of good people were hurt in the process, but we will not go back to the organizations we had before the recession. We are leaner, more focused, and more resilient than we were before, all positive outcomes.
Evaluate whether local government is prepared for the ongoing wave of retirements.
I’ve already mentioned my concern about pension funds, and I also think that succession planning has been an undervalued discipline in local government, so I don’t think we’re necessarily prepared. That said, I believe the kind of disruption this turnover will have is generally positive. Because local government employees tend to have longer tenures than the private sector, we tend to become calcified—stuck in a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. The challenge will be to bring in fresh perspectives that will enrich our organizations, while providing a stable service level to the community.
Evaluate local government’s willingness to embrace new technologies.
While I think there are pockets were new technology is leveraged to improve service quality and efficiency, in general it feels like there is reluctance to take the risk and make the kind of investments that could pay off. Three areas where investment could really make a big difference—ERP, GIS, and social media—are on everyone’s radar, but few are doing it well. Also, very few governments recognize the need to manage and analyze big data, even though we are a key generator of community data sets. Few cities are willing to host hack-a-thons or other open-data projects that could leverage the intellect and the resources of the entire community.
A stable and growing tax base, a talented applicant pool with a passion for public service, and a moratorium on unfunded mandates.
Give a brief evaluation of your state government and the Federal government.
While I think much of the criticism of state and federal government is warranted, it seems to me that it overshadows the good work being done by agencies across the nation. Inspecting food, testing new drugs, protecting the environment and endangered species, providing parks and open spaces, prosecuting white collar criminals, supporting the poor and needy, promoting scientific research, defending our citizens, and on and on. It’s a spectacularly huge undertaking that is more or less successful. Bit of a miracle, given the political climate, I’d say.
- Reno’s budget manager promoted to assistant city manager
- Firm hired to help in hunt for new city manager
- Ready for Anything
- Management Partners
- Springs won’t host 2008 debate
360 Review – Archives
- Mattie Sue Stevens, City and County of Durham, NC
- Mitch Foster, Village of Kingsley, MI
- Josh Dukelow, Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce
- Ashleigh Weeden, SWEA
- Lee Jay Feldman, Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission
- Carlos Moreno, Code for Tulsa
- Andrew Opalewski, City of Troy, MI
- Shawn Ahmadi, Socrata
- Ryan Mannion, SeeClickFix
- Matt Huffaker, City of Walnut Creek, CA
- Katie Babits, City of Veneta, OR
- Chad Doran, City of Appleton, WI