Can Local Government Deliver on Big Promises in the New Normal?

Posted on January 8, 2021

face masks arranged in the shape of 2021

Right Now with Warren Kagarise (Linkedin/Twitter/Instagram)

What I’m watching: “Bridgerton” 😳

What I’m reading: Los Angeles Times journalist Sarah D. Wire’s deeply unsettling firsthand account of the U.S. Capitol siege.

In these unprecedented times, remember: We’re all in this together as we pivot to a new normal.

By now, we’ve all mocked the verbal clichés — but we’ve also internalized the words. The phrases seeped into our agencies’ communications too and, backed by the power of our institutions, now mean we need to live up to the responsibilities we laid out over the past 12 months.

In some of the darkest moments over the past year — and often under intense scrutiny — many of our agencies made big, bold promises about the future. We can dismiss the language as corporate PR speak meant to reassure customers and investors in, well, unprecedented times, but the commitments to our residents remain.

Now, with a vaccine in the arms of more than 5 million Americans and the pandemic’s end just over the horizon, we must make good on the promises of 2020. Regardless of changes at the federal level, local government is still the leader on some of the most pressing issues: public health, economic recovery and racial equity.

The just-concluded budget cycle helped many of us outline priorities for the next year or two, but much work remains.

Advancing racial equity is crucial to the future health of our communities, and in recent years, local government has been the most likely to enact needed changes. The work to address historic inequities — through land use, community investment and public safety spending — falls within the purview of cities and counties.

Though the lack of leadership from the federal government could end with a new presidential administration, local government is best suited to address each community’s specific needs.

Overdue work to close the digital divide also lands on local jurisdictions.

The overnight shift to remote work and school exposed the depth of our nation’s digital divide. About six-in-ten lower-income parents with children whose K-12 schools closed due to the pandemic said their child would face at least one digital obstacle while doing schoolwork at home.

While the pandemic brought interest and urgency to bridging the digital divide, work to build infrastructure and expand access to technology is only beginning and should not slow down once in-person learning and work resume on a wider scale.

The post-pandemic economic recovery is another monumental task where local government is primed to play a major role.

With the nationwide eviction moratorium poised to expire Jan. 31, a patchwork of city- and state-level bans is set to end in the coming months. Another top task for local agencies is providing additional support for small businesses, either in the form of homegrown programs or federal dollars administered by local jurisdictions.

I realize government alone cannot solve — or pay for — every problem. But the public sector must use its power as a convener and a negotiator to foment change. We also need to remain open to creative ways to raise money, and be transparent with taxpayers about why new revenue is needed and how we intend to spend it.

Fortunately, local government is positioned to confront the challenges ahead. Despite cratering trust in federal institutions, local government retains a positive view among residents. The shift to remote operations forced agencies to adapt to a digital-engagement-first model for interacting with constituents.

While our nation and agencies dart from crisis to crisis, we cannot lose sight of our commitments to make life demonstrably better for the people we serve. And, inevitably, outside pressure on some issues may start to drop as the pandemic fades. Keeping our promises is critical to maintaining and growing trust in our agencies.

Now more than ever.

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