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We Can Never Go Back to Before

Posted on May 14, 2021


Photograph of Mother from Ragtime the Musical with text overlay reading We Can Never Go Back to Before

Today’s Buzz is by Jenny Kosek (Twitter and LinkedIn), Community Engagement Coordinator for the City of West Allis, Wisconsin.

What I’m Reading: Radium Girls by Kate Moore

What I’m Listening To: Radiolab

What I’m Watching: Shrill

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In the 1997 blockbuster musical “Ragtime,” characters from across social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds encounter the upheaval and evolution of early 20th century America. One of the central characters, known simply as “Mother,” at first appears perfectly content managing her home and supporting her explorer husband, “Father,” as he departs on various adventures – forever leaving Mother behind. Departing on a year-long journey, Father dismisses Mother’s concerns. “It’s only a year,” he blusters. “Nothing can change in a year.”

Well.

A storm of change is brewing, and it slams Mother full force. Mother sees some things, and it fundamentally changes her outlook on her life. Reflecting on these changes, she sings the show stopping number “Back to Before” (performed impeccably here by the late Marin Mazzie). Softly, perhaps wistfully, Mother sings of the time before; does she miss it? Oh, no. Mother has endured, survived, and transformed. No longer wistful, she belts for all the world, “We can never go back to before,” not with longing, but with defiance and determination. Too much has changed. Too much has been learned. And too much will be lost if we try to reclaim the fantasy that the time before was better than the time that could come.

“Back to Before” came into my head after reading the Atlas For Cities, ELGL, CivicPlus, Route Fifty, and CivicPulse’s recent report on “The New Normal Local Government Survey.” Takeaways included “COVID-19 Won’t Fundamentally Change the Work of Local Government” and “the new normal may look like the old normal.”

What?

Too much has changed. Too much has been learned. And too much will be lost if we try to reclaim the fantasy that the time before was better than the time that could come.

As Mother learned and we now know, everything can change in a year. Since March 2020, the onslaught has been constant. We entered a digital world. We endured isolation and the headaches of working remote. Our local economies went through the wringer, and wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters did not get the memo that they should stay home during the pandemic. The role of systemic racism and calls for social justice migrated from academic conversation to active social movements in our streets. The pandemic itself, and the politicization and anxiety surrounding the virus and mitigation efforts, have demonstrably impacted our mental health and civility, dividing us even further. The past year has been marked by loss, fear, stress, conflict, and hardship. The expectations we have for and from one another and the institutions we work for and rely on have dramatically shifted.

Throughout it all, local government rose and responded. We successfully enacted a digital transformation, seemingly overnight. We continued to provide public health, safety, and essential services in the face of endless obstacles. We invigorated our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. We worked to provide resources and assistance to our communities as we struggled together. With all we’ve done, and all that we’ve shown we can do, we have more opportunity than ever to reimagine our communities’ futures and better serve our public.

Yet the New Normal Survey suggests local government is forgetting the reality of the past year and going…back to before.

According to the survey, only 57% of respondents agreed that the “move from paper to digital” will remain permanent going forward – a baffling notion considering 93% of American adults use the internet.  3 in 10 adults report that they are online “constantly.” How can there be any doubt that the move from paper to digital is permanent, and should only grow and receive increased emphasis, not less?

According to the survey, “the focus on acute crises related to COVID-19 (e.g., public health, crisis communications, enabling working from home)…is slowly starting to pass.” If anything, as we emerge from the pandemic, the focus on public health within municipal organizations should remain high. We need to reprioritize public health as a major municipal investment, and fast-track efforts to ensure equitable health outcomes for all residents. Since a lack of attention to and funding in public health is partially responsible for the coronavirus pandemic devastating the nation as it has, how can our present moment be seen as anything but an opportunity to learn from that mistake and rebuild thriving public health services in our communities to prevent the next public health disaster?

According to the survey, 44% of respondents observed that the events of the past 12 months increased retirements in our industry. Only 30% could agree that silos were broken down during the past year. Yet in a strange disconnect, “work from home and workflow management” ranked near the bottom of local government priorities in the next year. Now that the world of work is virtually unrecognizable from its pre-pandemic self, we can’t uphold antiquated practices at this pivotal time. Half of the entire workforce is now remote. “Flexibility is paramount” and work-from-anywhere is a must-have for younger workers. Devaluing remote work and restoring clunky, compartmentalized processes will devastate our ability to attract new and diverse candidates at time when filling vacancies efficiently is crucial.

According to the survey, 50% of respondents report their organizations will be prioritizing community engagement in the next year. Within that same question, only 13% of respondents cited “climate change and GHG emissions” as a priority in the next year, and only 19% cited “policing and systemic racism” as a priority in the next year. All of these are troubling misalignments as we come out of 2020. We just survived the second-hottest year on record. We know how climate change disproportionately impacts impoverished communities and people of color. We know that racism is one of the top three issues facing our nation. Local governments could play key roles in addressing both, yet the survey suggests we seem disinclined to address either. How can we hope for engagement if we fail to address major issues impacting our residents?

Look: I get it. Perhaps the one thing we can all agree on is that local governments are tasked with solving a lot of problems, and we have to prioritize where we can. But the events of the past year should propel us as an industry to respond to and embrace an irrevocably altered, pandemic-shaken world. Every community is different and of course priorities will vary based on each unique jurisdiction’s needs. But as we transition to the next phase of pandemic life, a future-focused, big-picture mentality is essential, and recognizing all we have done and can do is vital. We have an opportunity to reframe our organizations and reshape our communities with decisive, responsive, modern change. We need to define new strategies and policies that serve the communities we are now and will become in the future – not the communities we were prior to 2020.

Because too much has changed. Too much has been learned. And too much will be lost if we try to reclaim the fantasy that the time before was better than the time that could come.

We have a lot of work to do, a lot of people depending on us, and the power and potential to do it all. So let’s get to work on building a better future for the people we serve. Forward is the only option.

We can never go back to before.

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