Great American Return To Normal

Posted on April 17, 2020

return to normal
Today’s Buzz is by Meredith Reynolds, Park Planning & Partnerships Manager for the City of Long Beach.
Follow Meredith on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. 
What I’m Listening To: Playing for Change’s Songs Across the World Series features musicians performing a song together across 5 continents. Recently this series covered The Band’s song “The Weight” on the song’s 50th anniversary. The lyrics are quite timely and timeless: Take a load off, and put your load right on me.
What I’m Watching x2 (because let’s be honest, there is time ): Babylon Berlin, is a German neo-noir crime story about a detective investigating the gritty underworld of 1920s Berlin during the Weimar Republic, the chaotic 15-year era before the Third Reich. As you can imagine, this show is packed full of local government overtones and conspiracies! 
Then there’s the more playful Dispatches from Elsewhere, a series who’s characters stumble into an unbelievable scavenger hunt to solve a puzzle hiding just behind the veil of everyday life. Featuring the unlikely ensemble of Jason Segel, Sally Field, Andre Benjamin, and Eve Lindley is filmed in Philadelphia and is so interesting to throw yourself into.

Oh boy, how COVID-19 has ruined the best things. This year, kids birthdays, graduation, Passover and Easter were celebrated in a manner far different than anyone has likely celebrated before.  We were forced to change the status quo, and from what I’ve seen from friends and on social media, many celebrations were really creative. Aside from how inspiring it is to creatively carry on traditions that are an important part of what makes us human, it also shows that we are quickly capable of change.

Where's Waldo

Many of us have seen this in our local government workplaces since we have been responding to a global pandemic. Staff were sent home to telecommute, processes were put in place to electronically route documents for approval, staff schedules changed and some staff were reassigned to new duties, programming went online and many agencies stepped up their social media game, purchasing processes were streamlined, things that otherwise required extensive permits were suddenly allowed, and Commissions and City Councils collected electronic public comments and meetings were held online. Things that would have been said to be impossible before, or not wholeheartedly supported without some hesitation were put in place. Childcare was provided for front-line workers, mental health professionals were brought in to work with staff experiencing trauma, animal shelters took on the care of animals of front-line workers, many of which were the individual employee’s responsibility before this state of emergency. 

Now, several states, regions, and cities are beginning to discuss reversing health orders and contemplating what re-opening the economy looks like – with a lot of messaging around “getting back to normal”.

While I understand the desire to get on with the world and our life in it, I encourage us all to be very careful with this message because it doesn’t acknowledge the learning that we’ve been through as government organizations, and worse, sets the wrong expectation for our communities. There will be no such thing as going back to the normal we knew.

We’ve learned that many jobs do not require employees to show up in the office every day and employees can responsibly work from home while still remaining connected with their colleagues and supervisors. Imagine what this could mean for staff productivity, for automobile allowance or mileage reimbursement, and for how much office space a city needs to own or lease. It also has implications for wider policy changes and whether the agency would need to provide technology equipment to accommodate telecommuting. 

New Yorker cartoon

We’ve learned that our purchasing processes can be streamlined and associated forms can be electronic. Imagine how this could reduce the length of time it takes to get materials and supplies or contracts for service and how that extra staff time could be better spent. It is amazing that the world doesn’t fall off its axis if we email a document for electronic signature instead of mailing a paper copy for a wet signature.

We learned that we can quickly hire people and contract for staffing services. Imagine how streamlining these processes signals that your agency is an employer of choice and has modern hiring practices. Your agency may no longer lose out on talent because the hiring process takes 6 months to a year. 

We learned that there are many talented people in your organization that can successfully fill a myriad of roles and complete a wide variety of tasks. Imagine how these employees can be placed throughout your organization to align their talents with your agency’s needs, building experience from within. Look no further – you may have just found the perfect person in your planning or parks department who would excel in a public information or community services position and both the individual’s career and the agency’s outcomes are better for it.

We learned that our local business and service providers are entrepreneurial. Yoga and Zumba instructors took their classes online, local restaurants pivoted to take out meals or markets selling their raw products, local bars bottled cocktails for take-out, all without the arduous permitting processes that would otherwise accompany these types of businesses or uses. Imagine if these type of offerings could continue, allowing markets to continue to provide healthy food and to-go food for those who can’t otherwise dine out, or online exercise was afforded to homebound individuals desiring to continue to exercise.

We learned that financial resources can be swiftly directed to important areas of investment. Imagine how your agency could refocus on performance-based or programmatic budgeting aligning multiple sources of money for comprehensive programs, rather than by silos or department fiefdoms. Budgeting could even shift to two- or three-year cycles to better plan for what is to come.

We have learned that our government agencies, in fact, can do better, and there is nothing like a state of emergency to give us a sense of urgency and the will to make necessary changes. We would do well to incorporate these into the way we do business moving forward, becoming employers with modern and efficient processes that attract smart, committed employees.

And, as the financial reality of emergency spending becomes part of municipal budgeting for at least the next several fiscal years, this will certainly mean less staff, less services, and less programs. This above all is the reason our systems and processes should not go back to what they used to be – the time saved and bureaucracy reduced means staff and resources can focus on the services and programs important to the community. 

Whether you believe this is a large once in a lifetime alteration or you believe change is incrementally always happening, one important aspect is true – this is an opportunity, not to be missed. Many have had time to pause, do some soul-searching and determine what their priorities ought to be and what they need in their lives to be happy, contributing humans. 

In an article Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting, author Julio Vincent Gambuto tells us that as the country begins to figure out how we “open back up” and move forward, very powerful forces will try to convince us all to get back to normal and he warns us that the Great American Return To Normal is coming. He begs us to take a deep breath, ignore the deafening noise and think deeply about what you want to put back into your life.

finding nemo

We, at our local government organizations, should do the same. For as many negative things that have come from this pandemic, let us allow for time to capitalize on the opportunity.  Let’s decide that bureaucracy can be different going forward and recognize that this is at least one good thing that can actually come out of this. The immediate shifts in the processes and systems that we saw were very much focused on users to allow for as much business to continue as possible. We defaulted to user-centered design, putting users and their needs first. We provided for our staff to ensure those who were front line workers had the support they needed and others who played supporting roles were also provided opportunities to continue the City’s business remotely. We need this kind of thinking to be at the forefront as we evaluate our government systems and processes to determine what bureaucracy we need to put back as we move forward.

This is not to say that this emergency hasn’t shown a light on areas that need significant improvements, or daylighted processes in your organization that did not go well. There is a lot of learning on this front too. But in order to really focus on some of these systemic issues, we need to harness the opportunity to re-evaluate who we are as local government organizations and reducing bureaucracy is the first step to tackling larger issues. 

Be well my ELGL’ers, and continue to flatten the curve.

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