Objectivity is a pillar of our local government profession. We earn and maintain trust with our residents by treating them fairly. We advise and make decisions with the use of data-driven metrics. We continue to search for ways to make the services we provide more efficient and effective. Our objectivity helps us put the professional before the personal.
As I’ve been delving into theories and practices in social justice, the criticisms and issues with objectivity grow louder, and I find I’m listening more and more.
I’d like to have a conversation about alternatives to objectivity.
Objectivity lends itself to fairness, but it is a certain kind of fairness. It is a fairness where the person who makes $250,000 a year pays the same dollar amount for a traffic violation as someone making $25,000 annually. It is fair, yet the impacts on each individual are significantly different. So too with metrics, objectivity can provide us data on whether an urban renewal project can reduce crime, increase tax revenue, provide more jobs, but leave out other details such as the human impacts of a poorer area of a city being gentrified, people already struggling pushed out of their homes and neighborhoods.
Some of the criticisms I’ve been reading about objectivity revolve around its lack of nuance, of not recognizing our different perspectives, experiences, and life situations. Some of the criticisms point out that there is always a subjective quality to everything we do regardless of how scientific or mathematical we try to be. Most compelling to me personally is the argument that claiming objectivity removes ourselves from the equation, defines our beliefs as facts, our actions as unquestionable and untouchable.
If we wish to implement inclusivity, invest in equity, we have to be more vulnerable than this. We have to lower our guard and face whatever it is we need to hear, need to learn. We need to be open to our own biases, blind spots, weaknesses. We cannot reform without opening our profession up to genuine change, a change that talks of how we’re just being “objective” will hinder more than help.
Here are a few alternatives:
Goals allow us to pursue specific ends, to be able to say openly and confidently that we’re trying to build a bridge, fix our land-use plan, hire a workforce reflective of our community. Defining our work, our organization, our role through goals is less passive than claiming objectivity, it is more forward-thinking, and gives us more room to insert our unique talents and perspectives.
Example of Objectivity: We will build a bridge that is safe and improves the traffic flow of the community as according to the engineering designs.
Example of Goals: We will build a bridge that will be safe and improve the traffic flow, and will also serve as public art reflecting our community values, be pedestrian-friendly to promote recreation, and will invest more to ensure the bridge has a longer lifespan than required.
In the first example, we stick to what’s required, what’s expected of any bridge. In the latter example, we insert real goals that separate this particular bridge project from others of a similar nature. Here we provide other priorities beyond the bridge itself, take an active role in other aspects of our community.
Passion has more emotion behind it than objectivity, more heart, and that is a good thing. Passion sparks creativity, excitement, drive that goes beyond taking a neutral stance toward our work. From designing a park, to building regional partnerships, to even a budgetary report, we can add passion to it, and if anything be more professional than removing all feeling out of it.
Example of Objectivity: This analysis contains the best-accepted practices of other local governments and other relevant information for the project.
Example of Passion: This analysis is our best effort to show the pros and cons of this project in a way that’s accessible to our community and doesn’t shy away from the very real challenges we face regardless of the choices we make.
In the first example the author(s) of the report can respond to any inquiry with, “this is what other communities have done” or “this is what’s accepted” and step away. The latter example still allows the decision-makers whether elected officials or an executive to make the final choice, and puts the author(s) in a place of more responsibility. They’re more answerable to any questions, concerns, critiques, or even praise.
Finally, one alternative to objectivity is solidarity whether it’s within our organization, community, or global-local government profession. Objectivity puts the personal aside, for solidarity, people, and our overall consensus and support for one another becomes central. As human beings we are imperfect, but we can be imperfect together.
Example of Objectivity: We provide efficient and informative customer service to our residents.
Example of Solidarity: We serve our residents, part of that service is efficient and informative customer service.
In the first example, customer service is the end of the discussion. In the latter example, it is only one piece of the puzzle. For objectivity, we are cogs in a system, for solidarity we are part of meaningful human relationships.
I encourage local government leaders to consider how we can hold onto the parts of objectivity that have served us such as organizational effectiveness, and how to evolve beyond the problematic aspects such as using it as a security blanket to avoid alternative ideas and data. As the calls for change continue, we have to look at more than just surface-level reforms, but more foundational beliefs as well.