Forecasting the Future of Local Government: 4 Observations Impacting Our Future

Posted on January 9, 2014

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From the inspirational words of Robert Kennedy in the 1960s to the interesting words of Robin Thicke in 2013, Julie Underwood, former Shoreline (WA) city manager, includes it all in part one of this two-part series on “Forecasting the Future of Local Government.”


Forecasting the Future of Local Government:4 Observations Impacting Our Future

This is part one of a two-part article. Part one discusses my observations that are impacting local governments and some thoughts on how to manage them. Part two will highlight the skills needed to address those challenges.

I’ve been in this field for about 15 years now and as I reflect on what’s ahead for local government, I’ve come up with four predominant observations that I’d like to share. If you have others please share them in the comments section below.

Recently a graduate student interviewed me for a paper and one of her questions was, “What are the most critical problems you face as a manager?” She mentioned that my first answer was a theme she was hearing from other managers. This leads me to my first observation.

1. Demands Grow – Resources Lag

sears-in-shoreline-630Even with the Great Recession and declining revenues, demands from the community continued to grow. The community I previously worked for (Shoreline, WA) wanted more sidewalks. When the unincorporated area developed in the 50s and 60s, there were no code provisions that required sidewalks for new development. When the city incorporated in 1995, it inherited the poor infrastructure, which lacked sidewalks and storm water facilities. The cost to complete the remaining 79 miles of sidewalks identified in the city’s pedestrian system plan is estimated at between $55 and $127 million. Nevertheless, as traffic increased, new residents replaced long-time residents, and walking became associated with environmental sustainability and promoting a healthy community, the demand for sidewalks/paths and bike lanes grew. Yet the revenue just hasn’t been available to sustain a capital program dedicated to this priority.

LM_StillDoingMoreWithLessCities are also experiencing the demands of an aging infrastructure. Cornell University Professor Mildred Warner from her Public Administration Article titled, “The Future of Local Government: Twenty-First-Century Challenges,” puts it well: “At the local level, we have an infrastructure crisis and a lack of public capital for reinvestment.”

Cities are doing all they can to stretch their limited dollars through innovative practices in order to preserve the assets they have (e.g., chip seal instead of overlays, contracting with other public sector agencies, competing for grants, etc.). Unfortunately, the public sector continues to hear the phrase, “government needs to do with more with less.” At some point, less produces less.

Professor Warner points out how federal and state support has declined. Cities have definitely experienced this during the recession.  In addition, unfunded mandates from federal and state governments have also applied more financial pressure on cities. Many of these mandates serve the greater good and benefit our society. Examples range from implementing federal storm water regulations to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act to ballot initiatives such as Washington’s I-900, which required local governments to undergo performance audits. Nobody objects to the worthiness of these mandates – the issue is that the resources needed to implement them compete with other worthy priorities. There just isn’t enough money to do it all.

How Can We Respond?

Cities and counties will continue to struggle with revenue shortfalls and growing demands. While this isn’t truly a new concept, what I’ve experienced is that as states or voters continue to limit the taxing authority of local government, these governments will need to rely on their own communities. They will need to continually go out to voters for operational and/or capital levies.

This scenario makes it imperative for governments to make communication and outreach a priority. If cities are able to communicate the problem effectively, this will enable citizens to rise to the occasion to help solve the problem.

2. Extreme (Government) Makeover

183711961I would hear my seasoned colleagues lament the good old days of the Kennedys, when it was noble to serve your community through government. In fact, Robert Kennedy said, “The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.” To me, that’s what public service is all about.

Over the years, many of us have witnessed local government elections of candidates who were “running against government.” They were going to “scrub the budget” and eliminate waste. Unfortunately, this cynicism and mistrust resonates with the public.

In addition, when there are sensationalized negative media stories of a city/elected official (e.g., Bell, CA, Toronto, Canada, etc.), we all get painted with that image.

Likewise, in a recent Gallop poll, Congress is seeing a 9% approval rating. On the bright side, the Pew Research Center’s poll conducted last year showed an overwhelming majority – 74% of respondents – reported a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in local government, the highest level recorded since 1999.

How Can We Respond?

As public servants, we must always think about how we’re building and sustaining trust with our community. First, it’s critical to embrace a code of ethics and promote a culture of integrity with staff. Second, we need to make greater use of the tools that we have available to strengthen and broaden our communication and engagement with the community (e.g., social media). Third, we need to connect and support relationships/partnerships with the community, business members, and stakeholders. Trust isn’t freely given; it’s earned through relationships.

3. Embracing New Technologies to Connect Our Community

imagesCell phones are so 1990s! In fact, I got my first cell phone in the late 90s. This little handy tool truly revolutionized communication. Today we’re not talking about cell phones, we’re talking about mobile devices – technology/connectivity is changing how we live our lives and do business.

What I’ve seen is that local governments are not usually early adopters of technology. In general, government is risk adverse and in so many ways technology symbolizes innovation/change/newness/risk. But here’s the thing – as our community shifts and becomes more capable users of new technology, there will be an increasing expectation for cities to use technology as well.

Along with the use of technology, the community has an increasing expectation for data and information. Unfortunately, many cities struggle with automating the availability of real-time data. They lack resources, talent, and sometimes commitment from leadership.

How Can We Respond?

Because of all of the technological advances, costs have lowered (e.g., data centers can be managed in the cloud) and new innovative tools and applications are available (e.g, SeeClickFix app, crowdsourcing, etc.). The key is to have the technical expertise to thoroughly evaluate options and to understand the short- and long-term cost-benefits of the new systems and services. Governments will need to seek outside support and consultation when making these investments and will need to train staff to manage these more effective/cost-efficient tools.

4. Blurred Lines: Politics/Administration Dichotomy 

Tenet 7 of the ICMA code of ethics states:

Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators. Refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body.

We all understand how important it is to avoid getting involved in campaigns of candidates. I’ve had to turn down many invitations, whether to a fundraising breakfast or election party. As a professional, your credibility and trust is built on being able to objectively serve whoever is elected.

images (1)That being said, where I’ve seen the “lines blurred” is with ballot or bond measures. Sometimes elected officials have an expectation that you will contribute and actively support the campaign.

I understand where our elected officials are coming from. Usually it’s staff that has recommended the measure in order to address financial shortfalls or community needs. And, once this happens, it’s difficult for some community members to see staff as impartial. Under the guidelines of Tenet 7, ICMA members may “assist their governing body in the presentation of issues involved in referenda such as bond issues.” Some of us are faced with City Councils who may want staff to actively advocate and demonstrate that they have skin in the game, and yet, this very act may be seen as contrary to staffs’ professional objectivity.

How Can We Respond?

This issue is directly tied to the observations mentioned above. As governments continue to struggle with demands and the increasing costs of providing services, they will need to go out to voters more frequently. In order to see success at the ballot box, having the community’s trust is critical. Trust is built through integrity, open communication, and community engagement (and technology and social media can help).

While there are other noteworthy observations I could share, these ranked fairly high on my list.  Part two will cover the skills needed to address these challenges. In the meantime, what observations have you seen and what impact will they have on the future of local government?

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