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ICMA’s 14 practices for effective local government leadership are not mutually exclusive; they are not designed to be. While preparing for work as a local government leader, it is important to see where and how the different practices flow together, particularly in preparing to deal with complex issues. A case in point: combating disinformation and misinformation. This is increasingly a thorn in the side of local leaders and can be a thorn that either embeds itself deeper within the local government organization or scratches a path throughout the community, leaving government leaders and stakeholders scarred.

There are five practices for effective local government leadership that together enable local leaders to successfully recognize and combat disinformation and misinformation, and that further enable local leaders to strengthen communities that have been fractured by them. Taken together, these practices are those used by the relationally intelligent leader. The practices are community engagement, equity and inclusion, community and resident service, technological literacy, and communication and information sharing. There are additional practices that are relevant as well, but these are the dominant ones to ensure effective leadership.

At the 2022 ICMA Annual Conference, my colleague Sarah Stoeckel and I offered a two-part micro-certification in relational intelligence. In it, we covered much terrain that link the five practices, including the following:

  • Combating disinformation online and offline.
  • Framing your community vision.
  • Creating a social media policy.
  • Designing and implementing a communication plan for crisis and non-crisis situations.
  • Becoming a collaborative leader and inclusive communicator.

Relational Intelligence

First, what exactly is a relationally intelligent leader? You may have heard of the idea of emotional intelligence or cultural intelligence. The first concerns the ability to empathize with others, to move beyond the transactional nature of the professional environment and see to the care of the person behind the task list. The second concerns the ability to adapt to a new cultural environment, whether that be in a new country or city, or when interacting with individuals with different cultural norms and values than one’s own. Relational intelligence concerns the ability to see the people and organizations within one’s environment, to recognize and deepen trust bonds with potential allies, and to build new links where there are gaps to specific groups, demographics, or organizations in the community.

To be relationally intelligent is to (1) practice effective community engagement, (2) communicate in ways that not only seek to be inclusive but that are specifically not exclusionary to any group, (3) design service delivery systems that are open for democratic feedback, and (4) utilize available social and other technologies to detect and overcome forces in the community that interfere with any of the preceding practices.

Those interfering forces are the creators of disinformation and spreaders of misinformation. We must differentiate between disinformation and misinformation, as they each require a different kind of response.

The Various Types of False Information

Disinformation is defined as existing at the intersection of two dimensions: accuracy and intent of the creator. Information that is inaccurate and spread by an individual with self-interested intent (e.g., to promote a specific policy or value) is disinformation. Information that is vague or ambiguous (i.e., accuracy cannot be determined) and spread by an individual with self-interested intent is disingenuous information. Information that is technically accurate but lacking a complete context and spread with bad intent is distracting information. Each of these destabilize the policy process and threaten to fracture communities.

Comparatively, misinformation is inaccurate but spread by an individual with good intent (i.e., they think they are helping the community by “warning” about risks or dangers). Misguided information is vague or ambiguous and spread with good intent. These both also threaten the policy process and community cohesion but require different solutions and strategies of the relationally intelligent leader. Information that is accurate and spread by someone with good intent often is missing information in that it is drowned out by the various manifestations online and offline of disinformation and misinformation. The relationally intelligent leader must amplify the missing information, block the spread of misinformation and misguided information, and inclusively communicate truth in response to all forms of disinformation.

Taking Action

One of the clearest ways to do this is to recognize that the city or county manager, or any leader in local government, is not alone in dealing with these issues. To control and combat misinformation and disinformation, and to amplify the voices of those who are trying to spread good information, requires partnerships with allies both inside and outside government. Leverage the social media relationships of the business community, nonprofit alliances, faith organization coalitions, and neighborhood associations. These allies can help identify dis- or misinformation before it fractures the community, and they can help to protect residents from being infected by disinformation in their zest to protect their community.

In a previous article I wrote for PM in 2020, “Social Media in Local Government: Leave or Experiment,” I suggested that local governments should either experiment with or leave social media if there are insufficient resources to engage in innovative ways.1 I still agree with my previous writing. Here I build on it. Experimentation with social media and online engagement, or with democracy in general, is not only a question of the local government’s resources. It is a question of how local government resources are merged with and deployed strategically alongside those resources online and offline of community partners, stakeholders, and, ultimately, allies.

Conclusion

Disagreements on policy and community direction will persist, as they should, within and across our communities. However, all who have invested and continue to invest resources in businesses, people, or families have a shared interest in keeping our communities strong, rather than divided. The relationally intelligent leader is one who unites and never excludes. Using ICMA’s effective leadership practices as guides, we can strengthen our communities for the important work of building opportunities for a high quality of life for all who live, work, play, and pray beside us.

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THOMAS BRYER, PhD, is a professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida (thomas.bryer@ucf.edu).

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