Just One Thing: 85 Action Items For Strengthening Local Government

Posted on September 29, 2014

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Kent Wyatt is a senior management analyst with the City of Tigard, OR and the co-founder of ELGL. He writes the Local Government Confidential and This Week in Local Government columns.


Enough of the excuses. Shred your “I’m too busy” or “I don’t know how” replies. We’re here to highlight more than 80 ways that you can strength the state of local government.

ELGL was motivated by the “just one thing” challenge that Bonnie Svrcek, SE ELGL advisory board member and Lynchburg, VA deputy city manager issued during her ICMA presidency. In the spirit of that challenge, we asked attendees at the ELGL and ICMA “Back to the Future” event to name one thing that we can do to strengthen the profession.


Three themes emerged:

We should devote more resources to improving government transparency.

We are ineffective and robot-like in telling our story. We must find creative ways to connect with our communities.

As leaders, we need to “pay it forward” by offering meaningful work experience to those entering local government, and equally as important, for those already in local government.

A handful of responses did not fit into any of the themes. You can find those at the end of this article.

We’ll highlight responses to our other questions – mentors and state of local government – in subsequent articles. (These articles will be available only to ELGL members.)

For now, set aside your TPS report and take a big sip of your pricey pumpkin spice latte and learn how you can make a difference.

Transparently, Un-Transparent

10-Puns-That-Are-So-Bad-They-are-Goodieowrwikvnwv.SR6_You would expect to find this suggestion made by groups outside of government. You do not expect managers at an ICMA Conference to identify this. However, many practitioners view better transparency as a means of increasing the low level of public trust in government.

Here’s what they said,

The hope is when citizens can easily access the information that they need, they will understand why thing are done the way they are. This will result in a chain reaction where local governments would become more honest, more approachable to citizens and trustworthy.

Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Together, local government professionals can encourage the public trust through transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Public engagement enhances local government effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.

Serve as an advocate for our profession and government. There is little trust in government (on all levels).  It’s my duty to work with residents to make sure they know they are being heard, they mean something to the community, and that government is here to help find solutions.

Masters of the Mundane – Robot-Like Communications

Let’s face it – the majority of local governments communication is ineffective at connecting with the community and potential employees. We need former news reporters, public affairs specialist, marketing professionals, and others to liven up our communication. It’s encouraging that many of our respondents identified this as an area where we must make improvements.

Our respondents identified simply ways to turn the tide in connecting with our communities such as riding public transit, hosting meetings in non-city facilities, and showing up.

Share your passion for local government. Let it be contagious!

Better engage with citizens and businesses in manners that best work for each of them.

Look and listen.  I walk or bike every street in town each year (most more than once/year).  I look and listen for the things that are working and positives in each neighborhood, and I note the things that need to be fixed (often before residents can call about them). And, I speak with residents, listening and asking questions.

Educate your friends and family about the services provided by local governments.

Reach out and interact with the local people.  Take public transit to work, eat at local residents, and interact with street vendors.  Show a presence and concern for the well-being of the residents. 

Simplify our approaches and communication to offer more meaning to our employees and our citizens.

Tell great stories about our work. We have amazing stories to tell about supporting and transforming communities. We need to connect people to the work that makes a difference in their lives and attract diverse bright minds to our organizations.

Talk to each other. An issue is rarely unique to just one local government. By sharing successes and struggles with networks of local governments, professionals can learn how to strengthen their own governments and help others to do the same.

Tell stories about the good things happening in local government

“SHOW UP” at City hall every day with a mission of doing good/complete/quality staff work, with a goal of supporting your staff, commission & community. Also remember to be “Brave enough to start the conversations that matter” with these three groups.

Be genuine. Citizens are savvy these days. They know when we’re speaking ‘bureaucratese’. This will help our reputation and help citizens to trust us.

Plug the Brain Drain

“Hire an intern” is an easy solution (although often ignored) for cultivating a new generation of local government employees. The better solution is creating meaningful work opportunities through internship and entry level positions; and doing the same for employees already in your organization.

Scott Lazenby, current Sandy (OR) city manager and former Lake Oswego (OR) city manager, mentioned this at an early ELGL forum. He stressed the need for being creative in creating management analyst-type positions. Whether you call it a management analyst position is not as important as the work that you give that position. Also, the department that houses the position is not as important as exposing the position to experience in citywide issue.

Our ELGL & ICMA event attendees chimed in with,

HIRE AN INTERN! We are losing out on hundreds, maybe even thousands, of great people to join our profession because they can’t get a foot in the door.

Partner with MPA programs/schools to cultivate the next generation of local government leaders by creating mutually beneficial internship opportunities – getting students excited about the field and allowing students to contribute their talents and skills to local government

Encourage young professionals to become involved in local government either as a career or to serve on a committee.

Reach out to young people who haven’t determined their career path yet! Go speak to undergraduate political science classes and high school government classes. Create internship or shadowing opportunities for students who are interested in “testing” out local government administration. Show them the value and benefit of public service, for those providing the service and those receiving it!

10635933_677040429048189_6557322323690358684_nNobody in this profession does anything on their own or gets to where they want to be without support.  Once upon a time even the most seasoned local government managers were brand new and depended upon others to learn and develop…someone took a chance on them, or showed them the ropes, or taught them valuable lessons.  In our business the success of others means success for us all.  So, be that person for someone.  It helps the profession, it helps local government in general…and it feels REALLY good.

Mentor department managers in the value interplay that is the political process.  Create an atmosphere that focuses on our role of helping elected officials pick a path among competing values rather than a path among right and wrong choices.

Mentor. Current and future local government leaders need a well-rounded experience and many perspectives, a good “kitchen cabinet” is invaluable at any stage in a career.

Mentor young people who aspire to become local government managers

Work with your undergrad and/or graduate school to establish a local ICMA Chapter.  By doing so, you can help educate future generations about rewarding careers in local government.

And a Few More…..

While these responses didn’t fit into one of the three themes, each is equally important in highlighting action items.

Volunteer. And not as an afterthought, but as a core of who we are. Give of ourselves beyond what we are asked. We have a huge need in cities for community organizing to solve social problems. By default, we all should be very adept at this sort of work, but it’s not asked of us. We have the tools to help empower our citizens and help them organize their ideas. Create energy and fill up all your empty seats at the city council meeting. And embrace active participation. I guess that’s more than “just one thing.”

Technology investment. 

Stay focused on our responsibility to make positive impacts on people’s lives.

Act with integrity and creativity.

Make more decisions based on the big picture and not necessarily what’s easy today.

10337693_10205122010152623_5592241702482789589_nFoster an environment that embraces creative thinking and treats failure as an opportunity (to a reasonable extent). The challenges facing local governments in the future will require creative and innovative solutions. The path towards reaching these innovative solutions will inevitably involve failures. Local government professionals must create environments that embrace failure as a learning opportunity rather than allowing the fear of failure stifle innovative and creative thinking. Doing this will open the opportunity to discovering new and better ways of doing old things.

Use analytics to make data-informed decisions.

Local governments can provide more opportunities for risk-taking that result in greater innovation.  As stewards of the taxpayer’s investments, local government must balance the obligation to deliver efficient and effective services with searching for new innovative methods to improve service offering and impact.  In order to strike this balance, local government cannot be overly risk-averse.  Innovation and growth cannot happen in a risk-adverse environment, instead over time depending on the level risk-aversion a community can lose value.  Therefore, where appropriate, local government should seek to modulate between risk-adverse and a risk-taker, which will create more opportunities for innovation.

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