This is probably the closest I’ll ever come to going viral, which is a good thing because most people don’t go viral in their finest moments.
Since last Friday, thousands of people have viewed one of my posts on LinkedIn, where I gushed about a public servant I’ve never met who lives literally on the other side of the world.
His name is Nigel Morris and he’s the CEO (much like a City Manager) for the District Council of Yankalilla in South Australia, population 5,401. What brought out the fangirl in me? A forum about wastewater on their community engagement site, Your Say Yankalilla.
I went full super fan on this forum, not because of the topic (although may I take this opportunity recommend one of my favorite episodes of RadioLab ever, Poop Train), but because of the incredibly sleeves-rolled-up, fully-committed-to-the-keyboard-and-his-community approach of Mr. Morris.
Since this conversation launched ten days ago, Nigel has responded thoughtfully and thoroughly to each resident’s concern or question posted to the forum.
The conversation is not a light one, as the Town is asking residents if they should transfer their locally-managed wastewater and water supply to South Australian Water Corporation (SA Water). The forum prompt is this:
There are a number of advantages and disadvantages of the proposal to transfer the Wastewater & Wirrina Water Supply to SA Water. We are keen to seek the views of ratepayers and residents across the District to inform our decision making. Do you think we should make the transfer? If yes, why? If no, why not?”
Nigel’s candor is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in local government. His responses are straightforward, easy to understand, and free government jargon or political opacity. Check out a few of his responses:
“SA Water is currently owned by the State Government and has state-based pricing under the guidance of ESCOSA. But there is no guarantee that this will always be the case.”
“There is only one full time employee dedicated to the CWMS and Water system. We are currently working with SA Water on the transfer plan (should it go ahead) and what this will be mean for the one employee. Speaking personally, my pay packet will not be lowered if the transfer goes ahead, it is correct, a proportion of my salary comes from CWMS and water. If these systems are sold, I will dedicate my time to other pressing matters or hopefully go to bed slightly earlier at night.”
My commentary on LinkedIn was,
“I cannot stop reading this Wastewater Forum from the town of Yankalilla in Southern Australia, not because I’m obsessed with Wastewater policy, but because the town CEO Nigel Morris has enthusiastically leaned into the conversation, responding thoughtfully and thoroughly to each resident concern or question.
If you’re a director level or higher public servant, imagine doing what Nigel has done – actively participate in an online forum for dialogue, discussion and debate with your community members. Your initial feelings might be that of perceived risk or fear of trolls, but past that is the possibility that by putting yourself and your plans out there, you create what is the beginning of a mutually beneficial, trusting, productive and sustained conversation with your community. Imagine that!”
So why did my digital fan letter to Nigel get about 20x more views than anything else I’ve ever posted about before?
We could talk about algorithms or shares, but I suspect it is because very few of us who have worked in the government sphere have ever witnessed this level of immersive participation from an executive-level public servant. Nigel is a unicorn.
My post made its way all the way over to Australia, and Nigel commented back to me directly, saying, “Thanks Meghan, it may also surprise you to find that I am also the Council’s prime Social Media Dude and have been responding to all on Facebook for the past three years.”
At this point my mind is so blown that I’m trying to figure out ways to nominate Nigel for President of the World. To follow that up, a woman who lives in Adelaide, Australia pitched in her thoughts, saying “I already know you’re a great CEO and Yankalilla District Council and the residents of the region are benefiting from your governance, but I would never have guessed you are the person behind the thoughtful, patient Facebook posts and responses.”
Thoughtful and patient. If you are a public servant, can you apply those words to yourself, your actions, your communication? Do you look forward to conversations with the public, or actively avoid them? If you actively avoid, why?
I’m aware that what 2,000+ people are seeing unfold in my LinkedIn feed, and for the community of Yankalilla, isn’t necessarily a sustainable practice for all public leaders or communities, but there are some key takeaways here:
- Transparency is mutually beneficial. The power created when you become a trusted source of news and factual information for your community is immeasurable.
The power is in the time saved for your community (being able to go directly to the source for information and answers) and for you and your staff (less management of misinformation, fewer open records requests, zero damage control). When the public is given the opportunity to dive deep and engage from a place of education, instead of from a place of opinion, everyone wins.
- Putting up a bit more work in the beginning will leave you with lot less mess in the end. A perfect example is the recent news that Amazon is abandoning a years-long plan to build a new campus in New York City after a small group of residents got extremely vocal about being cut out of the process.
I say small group purposefully – a recentQuinnipiac University poll showed that 57% of New Yorkers approved the Amazon deal and the jobs and tax revenue it would bring to Long Island City. You can do almost anything with a 57% approval rating, except when you deny residents the opportunity to have their say.
- Engage on topics that have real, actionable consequences. Yes, community engagement asks about park features and public art, but rarely are those conversations contentious. If the only real conversations you’re having publicly are ones that don’t have immediate, direct effect on people’s lives, your residents are left to imagine what those conversations are like behind closed doors.
This is how misinformation is born and online echo chambers created. When you commit to engaging your residents across all topics, even the ones that you know are going to bring out some real emotions in your community, you’ve begun what can be an incredibly productive, trusting relationship.
- Bravery is rewarded. It is all too easy to operate from a place of fear, and where does fear come from? The unknown. If we don’t put ourselves directly into the conversation, it is easy to imagine the worst. Your community is not represented in the back alleys of Facebook and the dark corners of private NextDoor groups.
Your community is 99% comprised of people you’ve never met or talked to, because you’ve never really tried. Don’t be afraid of the little you think you know. Pretend like you’re at a junior high school dance but packing the confidence level of a college sophomore. They’re playing The Smiths and you’ve got new Nikes on. Get out there.
- Humans like humans. Be a human. Put your face out there, your contact info out there, your thoughts out there and your ideas out there. Meet your residents and conversations from a place of collaboration instead of a place of regulation.
I’ve done the work and so have many of my current and former colleagues. It is rarely perfect and guaranteed to deliver some really uncomfortable moments where you’re unsure as to whether or not you’re doing the right thing, but believe me – YOU ARE.
The crux of all of this is the golden rule of government: Treat your residents with the same level of respect and care that you’d expect from a trusted colleague. We are public servants, lead fearlessly by the Nigels of the world, and we owe this much to the communities we serve.
If you have examples of fearless leadership as it related to community engagement, share them with us on Twitter at @ELGL50. If you think Meghan is off her rocker, feel free to drop her a note at [email protected]. She looks forward to enthusiastically responding to each and every one of you.