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COVID-19 learning & connection opportunities: week of May 18, 2020

Skillful Stewardship in Times of Crisis

Posted on May 12, 2020


April Blog

If there ever were a time to focus on ways to “future-proof” cities, COVID-19 certainly presented it. City governments are being tested, and frustrations and fears are everywhere. It is sobering to consider what daily life will look like six months from now. Nevertheless, we must move forward. This is not a dissertation on how bad things might get, I assure you. This is a call to action, a challenge issued, for skillful stewardship. If the current situation we find ourselves in does not make us more mindful stewards of our communities, then we are incapable of learning. It is not enough to simply be passionate about our communities; we must build them to last. As Angela Duckworth writes in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, “Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.”

What lessons can the pandemic teach us about communities that endure? So, so much. It also serves as a reminder of how impactful the roles people play within local government are, both immediately and long-term. Now’s the right time to ask ourselves this question (courtesy of Michael Berkowitz via Citylab): “Will we have the strategic gumption to make things better?”

Modifications to Governance as Usual. When crisis presents itself, we must be willing and able innovators. Adaptation is required at every level of the organization. What does this look like within a city? First, it requires acting with a sense of urgency and decisiveness. The ability to take such action starts from within. Being responsive to the public is critical. A great place to start is identifying areas where the traditional procedures are simply too arduous or slow, given the crisis. How can business be conducted in the interim that prevents the creation of bottlenecks? How will development reviews be conducted to maintain forward progress? Have critical decisionmakers been briefed? What technology can be maximized? How must procurement temporarily change? How do we save ourselves from excessive bureaucracy?

Measuring Success. Cities must be nimble enough to “roll with the punches”, so to speak. Measures that are acceptable in crisis are fundamentally different than measures that are acceptable outside those times. Clear communication of these measures – the interim standard – must be given to citizens and staff. A unified voice is necessary to maintain trust and signify things are under control. Examples include modified response times, special called meetings, project delays/extensions, and tedious processes. The fact is, priorities are going to be different in times of crisis, and what is acceptable will be, too.

Building Fiscal Resilience. It is no secret that a city’s development pattern directly affects its bottom line. The continuation of cities on a path where they continue to lose ground financially, particularly when it relates to infrastructure maintenance, must cease. Patterns of development which do not yield a return on investment should be re-examined. Why continue to build ourselves into a deeper hole? If insanity is defined as doing the same thing but expecting a different result, what would we call this approach? Cities must start to understand the true cost of how development is laid out, along with the unanticipated consequences. An over-reliance on sales tax revenue also makes cities vulnerable and the fiscal impacts in a time like now are more immediately and deeply felt. 

Creating Community Resilience. Communications and partnerships are more important in times of crisis than ever. For cities asking that age-old question of what to cut from their budget, partnerships with their residents, local businesses, and non-profits (all of whom have time, talent, and resources) can help shoulder the burden and create efficiencies. Relationships must be maintained and created with less-traditional means and often with an urgency that makes that communication crucial. Being nimble is important here as well. Coordinating smaller and less expensive projects and approaches can still be very meaningful for your cities. 

Both action and inaction are choices. For leaders in local government, it is a critical time to re-evaluate the choices made daily and how they do or do not benefit the community and build resilience. Being in public service is being a steward of the city which one calls home. In times of personal crisis, we make changes to survive – often difficult changes that ultimately secure the wellbeing of ourselves or our families. It is typically impossible to reverse the effects of a current crisis. However, it is never impossible to adapt and make choices which better prepare us for the next storm that will inevitably come our way.


This is the new monthly blog series by AJ Fawver, Community Consulting Program leader for VERDUNITY and based out of Lubbock, Texas. She shares her take on planning for communities and securing their future in a time where legislation, fiscal pressures, disengaged citizens, and diminishing resources make it increasingly challenging. You can access all of the posts in the series and learn more about AJ on the Future-Proofing Cities homepage.


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