Local governments are confronted at present with a crisis of almost unprecedented proportions, which will likely be of extended duration. Triggered by the pandemic, the stress on localities will persist until well after a vaccine has been disseminated to control COVID-19. Many local governments are struggling with the burden of dealing with the pandemic and significantly increased strain on health, social services, law enforcement, and other departments. Revenues are taking a very hard hit and it will likely be quite some time before the financial crisis completely abates. Moreover, many local governments may suffer chronically from inadequate reserves and other questionable financial management practices that have exacerbated the problem, deepening the immediate financial distress.
This article is an attempt to distill a few lessons from observation, study, and some dumb mistakes during my 30 years of public management. The CANDOR acronym is more than a play on words. Each of the words describes an element of practice that may be beneficial during these singularly difficult times. In addition, candor itself is critical in our relationships with elected officials, our residents, and all those with whom we interact as managers. Indeed, it is the professional responsibility of public managers to share accurate information even when doing so is uncomfortable or career altering.
The following months and years will be exceptionally difficult for local government managers. As these trials unfold, it is essential that managers provide the kind of guidance that will allow communities to weather this storm while building the collective strength necessary to achieve a renewal that is both tangible and spiritual. CANDOR may serve as a useful framework for meeting this challenge.
Many members of the public are in severe distress due to the life-threatening illness of loved ones, financial travails, or other reasons. Politicians are eager to assert their authority and to resolve problems that are nearly intractable. In general, present circumstances have created widespread emotional upheaval. Despite the inherent volatility associated with so many aspects of the crisis, managers must consistently serve as a steady, objective, calming, and dependable presence.
An attitude of empathy and caring, along with a willingness to listen to all perspectives, is critical. Regardless of how stringent the demands of managing in this crisis become, an attitude that conveys openness and understanding will help to dispel hostility and set the tone for problem solving. It is imperative that local government managers’ attitudes and behaviors engender trust in the institutions they serve while acknowledging inadequate capacity to satisfy every need.
Wise managers understand the need to maintain political neutrality. The composition of elected boards changes and managers need to present information, weigh options, and deal with people in a manner that is as universally equitable as possible. It is obvious that partisan bickering and political blunders at all levels have hindered efforts to deal with the pandemic and address the resultant financial crisis. Through nonpartisan solutions and by serving as a neutral arbiter, managers may help bring reason to what often appear to be unreasonable situations.
Although some decisions will reside with the elected board, especially approval of agonizing budget cuts, there will be many day-to-day decisions that will fall to managers. Considering ever-worsening resource constraints and the severity of current problems, various managerial-level decisions may be very painful. Nonetheless, timely and rational decisions will help to keep programs functioning and ameliorate concerns that government is becoming dysfunctional.
In a crisis of the magnitude now impacting local governments across America, it is easy to become pessimistic and adopt a doomsday mentality. It seems almost trite to say that managers can serve as a beacon of hope, but the public truly needs such a calming influence in this perilous time. While it is never good to distort the facts or withhold information that people need to make personal decisions, it is possible to present information in a way that also presents plans to mitigate problems and hope for the future.
Eventually, this crisis will be overcome through the collective efforts of many good people. Most local government managers rely on experts that may or may not be under their supervision in order to make informed decisions and to craft relevant messages. The actions of local government managers can make a significant difference in terms of how we emerge from the crisis. It is possible that our country can be spiritually revitalized along with regaining physical and financial health. Managers have an opportunity to be part of the process of restoring confidence in the efficacy of American democracy.
Medical and pharmacological remedies will ultimately prevail, and despite enormous loss of life and quite possibly lingering health concerns, eventually America will be physically capable of a return to normalcy. At the same time, our already unhealthy psyche may be further damaged by our deep-seated divisiveness. We have become more polarized, less able to problem solve, and highly prone to engage in diatribe as opposed to productive dialogue. However, local government managers can model effective approaches for communicating, problem solving, and building unity, starting at the community level and hopefully moving upward. Perhaps this is the silver lining associated with the great crisis we are in.