It’s OK to Not Know

Posted on March 18, 2019

It's Ok to not know

Photo by Ansel.Ma


Today’s Buzz is by Samantha Roberts– connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter!

What I’m Listening To: Hold Out Your Hand, Brandi Carlile

What I’m Reading:  Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

What I’m Watching: My comfort background TV- The Office – on repeat


Maybe it’s the honesty brought out by reading Anne Lamott, but it’s high time we own our humanity in public service. I’ll start:  Sometimes I don’t know the answers to problems that desperately need them, like homelessness. I know that’s a big topic, but hear me out.

In Lane County, OR the 2018 Point in Time (PIT) count depicts a picture of 1,600 individuals without a permanent address, but we know that number is higher.  For example, we know there are more than 1,000 students without a home in Eugene, alone.  Each City Council meeting hosts numerous public comments admonishing City Council for an ongoing tragedy in our community. While Eugene is renowned for its nonprofits and community advocacy, the need is simply too great and growing for the capacity of our systems – public, private, or nonprofit.  And it’s not without tremendous efforts otherwise.

Like many communities, we make use of federal monies and local monies. We build partnerships between county and city departments, with consulting agencies and otherwise. We have policy boards and field experts weighing in on every angle. But it’s not enough. Decades of federal and local policies and economics have given way to a national crisis. Cities up and down the west coast especially are trudging through a humanitarian pandemic:  our neighbors are without homes, and my community has not been spared. It’s a big problem for which we don’t yet have an answer (though I think we’re very close).

As part of my job duties, I field phone calls from citizens, and this topic is a frequent flyer. Some calls are from those parts of our community who are upset with, fearful of, or angry at our unhoused citizens: “They take up too much space”; “they leave too much trash”; “there is poop in the flower beds and hypodermic needles behind the dumpsters”.  Sometimes they are from those who identify as being unhoused wondering where they can park their car legally, or what shelter is available locally.  Answering these calls feels a bit like one of those dreams where you’re running away from something scary, but you can’t move and you can’t scream, try as you might. I am often left stumped as to what to provide for resolution, and I do not feel that “I don’t know” is an option.

An elephant I’ve noticed in the corner of every local government meeting room, is that “I don’t know” is not an option, for many reasons. It’s not an option because it’s assumed I should know. It’s not an option because it is assumed that a public employee knows anything they are needed to know.  Most importantly, it’s not an option because for problems this big – this wicked – communities look to their government for solutions and for comfort.  For a public employee, who may as well be the organization to the caller, to “not know” could suggest there is no help on the way.  And that is a scary thing.

But I call bull on that assumption.  Is that actually a valid reason to withhold vulnerability with the public?  We don’t really expect every public servant to have all the answers, do we? We don’t really expect our government to fully understand and solve our most complex problems, do we? If we did, and that were the case, then why do we still see homelessness? Or an impossible tax code? Or for heaven’s sake – congestion pricing??

I’m not saying that governments can’t solve hard problems.  But as citizens, and especially as government employees, we need to remember that our organizations are simply a grouping of every-day people who have decided to take on their community’s toughest needs.  That with even the best education money can buy, decades of experience, and the best intentions – our world views our still limited by the experiences we’ve had. It’s why leveraging partnerships is so important. It’s why engaging with community stakeholders is critical. It’s why committing to best practice research and networking is vital to ongoing success.

We cannot know it all.  And that’s okay.

We are simply humans who have chosen a profession that serves others. We are not geniuses (at least most of us), or omniscient, or time travelers who came back to show us how to do it all the right way (though that would be awesome). We are just a handful of individuals who decided to lock it in with PERS and take a stab at making our home a better place.

So if you needed a reminder today, let me say it again: It’s ok to not know. Your value is not beholden to your ability to produce the answer someone wants to hear, or for that matter an answer at all when there really isn’t one.  Let’s embrace our humanity today and recognize that we are showing up, we are doing the thing, and sometimes that has to be enough.

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