Our Favorite Local Government Tips from 2019

A quick look back at some of our favorite pieces of local government advice.

Dec 23, 2019 | BLOG POST

To close out the year, we are taking a look back at 2019 ICMA blogs and PM magazine articles and sharing some of our favorite pieces of local government tips and advice. Here's our top favorites.

Managers Advise/Manage; Council Members Govern

While the roles of governing and managing often look quite similar to neophyte members of a council (or governing board), they are fundamentally distinct. The manager is charged with providing advice based on her or his expertise, training, and experience, whereas the council member who has just been elected is expected to come at the same issue from the perspective of a community member, not from that of their professional or work-life background. Regardless of background (and some may possess very useful skills relative to the needs of a municipality), the responsibilities of an elected official are quite different from that of the chief policy advisor, the local government manager. A mayor or councilor needs to speak the will of the public, at least as he or she understands it to be. The manager is not under the same obligation or yoke; he or she is to advise based solely on what makes administratively good sense and not be based on what the public may or may not support.

Adapted from Four Fatal Flaws of a Council-Manager Relationship written by George B. Cuff, FCMC, is president of George B Cuff & Associates Ltd., based outside of Edmonton, Alberta. 

Hire Great People

To make sure you have a great culture, hire great people. Hiring is one of the most important things that you do. A bad hire can derail a good team, so it is important to have more than one person make the selection. Consider a collaborative/consensus-based approach to hiring. In addition to the hiring manager, involve people who are outside the workgroup, such as people that they will work with directly in another department, as well as people that have no direct relationship to the position at all, other than understanding the organization and its needs.

Adapted from Three Critical Ingredients for Making a Great Workplace written by Valorie Waldon, HR consultant with Employers Council.

Sometimes All Someone Needs Is an Invitation

When residents feel they have a voice, they show up, participate, contribute, and they come back. What the city of Smyrna, Georgia has found time and again is that their community, like yours, is full of talented, passionate individuals who want to contribute and make their home a better place for everyone. Many people believe no one cares what they have to say and it’s our job to convince them that local government does care. If we’re not listening, we’re leaving ideas and opportunities on the table.

Adapted from How to Boost Civic Engagement with a Strategic Plan and Modern Tools written by Maxwell Ruppersburg, MPA, PMP, special projects manager, Smyrna, GA.

Create a Culture Change in City Hall

Residents were telling the staff of Orlando, Florida, that they were frustrated with the service delivery process. The feedback from residents was that the city’s website was difficult to navigate and online forms were confusing. Too often, community members had to spend their time traveling to city hall to access services and fill out forms that could have been made available online.

To mitigate this, the city’s new digital service team created the Digital Service Academy, which taught city staff how to create and test user-centered digital services in just three days. The academy helped participants build prototypes for new, more accessible online service request forms, and then get feedback from residents before making them publicly available. This process would typically take place within a week’s time. The digital service team also worked with staff to incorporate resident insights into other city initiatives.

As a result of these efforts, service satisfaction among residents has increased by 60 percent and city staff have created 170 user-friendly online services now available on its new, easy-to-use website. Perhaps most importantly, more than 100 city staff members have a better understanding of user-centered design, creating a culture in city hall that puts resident needs first.

Improving processes, programs, and tools that citizens use on a regular basis to engage with city government takes time and patience, but it yields tremendous results: residents get the services they need, the city can better solve important problems, and trust in government improves.

Adapted from Creating Sustainable Citizen Engagement: Involve City Residents in Solving Problems written by Myung J. Lee is executive director of Cities of Service.

Reinforce That Rock Stars Are the Visible, Vocal Advocates of the Preferred Workplace Culture

Indeed, these employees are the champions of change operationalizing the mission, vision, and values to enable your organization and community’s potential.

Professional, collegial employees who traffic in trust and building healthy relationships, rock stars value individual accountability and expect their organization’s leaders to be vigilant to ensure that it exists.

The best days for your organization and community are in front of it. Rock stars are symbols of this mindset and commit themselves daily to building a stronger community. They’re energized by the mission and purpose of local government. Today, people aren’t looking for jobs, they’re looking for meaning and local government is in the meaning business.

Adapted from Drivers of High Performance written by Patrick Ibarra, former city manager and partner, The Mejorando Group, Glendale, Arizona.

Look For and Understand Your Elected Officials Motivations

Elected officials become elected officials for a reason. Many are motivated by a desire to improve and serve their communities. Many are motivated by specific issues, like transportation, development, or schools. Others are propelled by a certain morality or a sense of right and wrong. Understanding the underlying motivation(s) of elected officials is key to understanding how they will react to certain policy proposals, what positions they will take in response to an issue, how they will receive information from you, and perhaps most importantly, how they will vote when their name is called.

You can begin to understand motivations by taking some relatively simple steps: sign up for the elected officials’ newsletter or follow them on social media; ask them (or their staff, if applicable) what their constituents are saying on a given issue; pay close attention to the types of questions they ask; and if appropriate, ask them directly from what viewpoint or angle they approach a given issue. You may be surprised with a candid and critically useful answer.

Adapted from The Beginners Guide to Working with Elected Officials written by David Street, project manager, Loudoun County, Virginia.

Branding Design is More than Taglines and Logos 

It has to do with identity and personality and a vision of how you want to introduce your town to the world. As you decide on your brand promise, get clear on the reputation you want to build.

Host live and virtual meetings so people can express their view on promoting their special place. Explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what’s in it for everyone. If it’s not an afterthought, community development can live well with economic development.

Encourage being bold, having fun, and sharing all. Listen with empathy to reactions and comments. Show folks you value their time and thoughts. Capture it all. Curate the content quickly and let people know how they can get their hands on it.

Adapted from 3 Branding Design Secrets That Elevate Community and Economic Development written by Rob Joseph former assistant city manager and founding director of the office of business and tourism for the city of Montrose, Colorado.

Ensure Your Personal Actions Demonstrate an Individual Commitment to Supporting LGBTQIA+ Colleagues

  • Take Responsibility to Educate Yourself. If you are not currently familiar with the definitions of terms, history, and concerns of the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s time to learn. Please don’t ask your one gay or transgender coworker to teach you, unless you are very confident in your relationship and know that they are willing to put in that effort for you. There are now countless websites, books, articles, podcasts, and films that feature this information.
  • Don’t Make Assumptions. Relying on stereotypes to dictate how you interact with others is dangerous. Please don’t assume another’s preferred gender pronoun, sexual orientation, or general proclivities simply because of how they speak, dress, or act. Before stumbling into your coworker’s personal life, I recommend simply being open and receptive to allow them to share themselves with you in their own time. If you have a business need to know something specific (e.g., knowing their preferred pronoun so that you can introduce them in a public setting), simply ask them directly and respectfully.
  • Become an Ally. Allyship is a lifelong process of learning and confronting biases within ourselves and others. Allies acknowledge their own privilege and leverage it to support and make space for the progress of historically marginalized groups.

Adapted from Somewhere Over the Rainbow written by Pam Davissenior management analyst in Boulder, Colorado, and chair of CivicPRIDE, the first nationally recognized professional association for LGBTQIA+ professionals in local government. 

Incorporate Your Mission and Values into Organizational Practice

This means talking about your mission at staff meetings, referencing the mission in performance management systems (like employee evaluations), and posting your mission in visible locations. To illustrate, the city of Albemarle, North Carolina, has a leadership and values statement—including teamwork, respect and humility—that it uses to onboard new employees, hire department heads, and recognize departments and employees in the city’s newsletter.

Think of your local government’s mission and values statement as a lighthouse that guides your organization’s path. By identifying your rationale, involving employees, and incorporating your mission into practice, you greatly increase the likelihood that your mission and values statement will be meaningful and effective.  

Adapted from Four Tips for Mission and Values Statements in Local Government written by Leisha DeHart Davis, professor of public administration and government, School of Government, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Require a Structurally Balanced Budget

In the minds of many officials, a budget is considered balanced if revenues exceed expenditures, regardless of whether the revenues are recurring or nonrecurring. We now know that local governments can wind up with a real fiscal mess when guided by this mindset. At some point, monies run out and the agency is left with a huge general fund deficit.

Local governments need to strive for a structurally balanced budget that requires recurring revenues equaling or exceeding recurring expenditures. If cities and counties cannot achieve structural balance, they need to publicly identify how much is supported by one-time money and how they intend to bring the budget into structural balance.

Adapted from Steering a Steady Budgeting Course written by Len Wood, interim city manager, Hemet, California.


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