How the 2010s Prepared Us for 2020 — and Beyond

Posted on January 1, 2020

Fireworks burst around Seattle's Space Needle

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

What I’m watching: Bon Appétit’s “Gourmet Makes” series, where pastry chef (and Instagram darling) Claire Saffitz re-engineers our favorite junk foods into high-end, handmade creations. Claire’s latest foe: Totino’s Pizza Rolls.

What I’m reading: “The Worst Hard Time,” Timothy Egan’s National Book Award-winning nonfiction account of life and death during the Dust Bowl — and a telling look at how Americans adapted to ecological calamity.

A decade born during the uncertainty of the Great Recession is departing with a roar.

What started amid belt tightening, pay freezes and economic stimulus yielded over 10 rollicking years to a national conversation about boomtowns and income inequality by decade’s end. However, despite a fresh start and a futuristic-sounding name, 2020 is likely to present many of the same challenges as the 2010s.

The previous decade, for better and for worse, forced governments of all sizes to get creative with revenue, rethink hiring and labor practices to adjust to demographic shifts, and in the face of breakneck technological advances, change the way residents receive services.

In local government during the last 10 years, we witnessed the depth of mismanagement — a financial scandal in Bell, CA, and the public health tragedy in Flint, MI, come to mind — as well as the height of what’s possible — with the rise of path-breaking leaders in Chicago; Montgomery, AL; and Tucson, AZ, and a renewed embrace of innovation and engagement at city halls nationwide.

While the decennial recaps and best-of lists focus on national government, a decade’s worth of churn also reshaped public service at the local level. So, in the spirit of the season, I offer five themes that transformed local government in the 2010s — and set the foundation for the decade ahead.

Engaged residents expect government accountability

As the layer of government closest to the people, accountability is often more tangible at the local and regional level.

In the last 10 years, new social movements, including Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, prompted local governments to start addressing long-overdue issues about racial discrimination and income inequality.

The phenomenon of First Amendment audits also led public agencies to rethink how front-line employees engage with community members and adapt to the scrutiny of a national or global audience.

Now, a single retweet or a fabricated news article can drive millions to your digital doorstep within seconds. Expect the attention to intensify further in the years ahead.

A lifetime ago, in early 2010s, social media still felt like a panacea to cure decades of apathy toward local government.

Now, after watching newsfeeds and timelines burn hot for years on end, and seeing followers leave due to privacy concerns, social media is a place where many agencies tread cautiously. Though the medium poses challenges, local governments continue to use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al to educate, engage and, increasingly, entertain.

Local governments lead on climate change

The last decade felt at points like a long, unending wake-up call of record-breaking heat waves, hurricanes and wildfires.

As the federal government rolls back climate-centric regulations and recedes from the global stage on climate change leadership, local governments have picked up the mantle. Disappointed with inaction on key issues, voters have turned to city and local leaders for change.

With climate change impacts growing more severe and difficult to ignore, look for residents to turn to cities for solutions and cities, in turn, to ask for residents’ support to make big changes.

Trust in local government remains high — for now

Despite the continuing erosion of trust in government, faith in local jurisdictions remained surprisingly resilient throughout the 2010s, even as Americans’ opinions and habits changed in major ways.

In 2018, Gallup declared Americans more trusting of local than state (and federal) government, with 72% of respondents expressing a fair amount to a great deal of confidence in local government.

Though reassuring, increasing threats from misinformation and the continuing polarization of civic life place trust in local government in a precarious position as 2020 kicks off.

The decline of local journalism has left a disconcerting number of city halls and government organizations without reporters covering the nuts and bolts of bureaucracy or serving as watchdogs for the public.

While journalism remains vital to communities, shrinking newsrooms mean agencies must now act as their own storytellers. The role of agencies’ public information officers evolved to include more influence, as well as more expectations from elected leaders and community members.

The role of government social media professional is now a bona fide position at many agencies, helping to feed the constant demand for content, real-time information and immediate customer service.

Technology transforms how government delivers services

Whether you blame or praise the private sector, innovations in retail and other customer-centric fields required local government rethink service delivery in the 2010s.

In many cities, Amazon Prime made near-instantaneous delivery a reality — and left many community members wondering why government could not do the same.

The pressure to provide Anything-as-a-Service (XaaS) is at the forefront for every aspect of government, not just information technology. And, of course, social media changed the way local government delivers services, too.

Changing demographics shift focus to equity

The ascent of millennials in the workforce dominated the decade.

As younger generations joined the conversation, local governments could no longer get by with merely paying lip service to advancing equity, diversity and inclusion, both within the organization and the broader community. In some cases, upholding local values put cities at loggerheads with the federal government.

In the public sector — no longer the province solely of middle-aged white men — local governments made strong efforts to increase diversity in city halls and create organizations more reflective of communities.

The generation (my generation) also poses unique challenges to civic engagement.

Changing demographics also led local governments to surf a silver tsunami of baby boomer retirements, and get more creative in recruiting and retaining millennials and, gulp, Generation Z.

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