Government’s Underappreciated Resource

Citizen volunteers, properly deployed, can extend government’s reach quickly and effectively.

Public servants, constantly juggling the demands of efficiency, innovation, fairness and responsiveness, usually are focused on ways to manage their traditional resources: government employees, contractors, infrastructure, technology. Too often overlooked is how a public leader can incorporate the most plentiful human resource--the citizen.

If you work in government, you know what it means to be overextended. But when Laurel Creech, local radio personality in Nashville started work on May 1, 2010, as the city's first chief service officer, she was already deep underwater.

The Cumberland River and its tributaries were beginning a historic flooding, a disaster that ultimately killed 10 people and damaged or destroyed more than 11,000 homes. After the waters receded, property losses were estimated at $2.5 billion -- including $120 million in public infrastructure. Nashville's response to the flooding illustrates the strength of government when it is adaptable -- and the strength of community when it is mobilized.

As the floodwaters rose (more than 13 inches of rain fell in 36 hours), Mayor Karl Dean and his staff sprang into action. Laurel Creech's first days on the job were spent helping the emergency management team and first responders with whatever needed to be done.

One immediate need was coping with the collapse of utilities, which cut off residents of the hardest-hit neighborhoods not only from electricity and other essential services but also from critical information flows. The city quickly assembled five impromptu neighborhood Disaster Information Centers, where emergency management staff could keep residents informed, distribute critical supplies to them and give them access to phones and computers.

But the heart of the city's response was an unprecedented outpouring of volunteerism. More than 27,000 people would eventually offer up more than 370,000 hours of their time to help Nashvilleans in need, and an important component of the Disaster Information Centers' success was their effective deployment of almost 1,800 of those volunteers.

As the waters receded, Dean built on the successful Disaster Information Center model by establishing "Rebuild Clinics" in the hardest-hit neighborhoods. Volunteers again played a powerful role, not only providing free architectural, engineering, accounting and counseling services but also clearing tons of debris and helping to clean and restore more than 500 waterlogged homes. To mitigate future flooding, volunteers cleaned miles of waterways, planted trees and built rain gardens.

Civic pride and service is a potent force in all communities, of course, but Nashville has a particularly strong tradition. From 2006 to 2008, one in every four adult residents volunteered. Just eight months prior to the flooding, Dean had joined dozens of mayors who are part of the Cities of Service movement -- a commitment to further community engagement and to connect volunteer service in ways that maximize its impact.

Creech is not the first public official to witness the powerful effect of this kind of community spirit. In my nine years as chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), I saw the tangible benefits that flow from one citizen helping another. In 2010, for example, CNCS reported that almost 63 million adults volunteered more than eight billion hours -- services valued at more than $170 billion.

Our research at CNCS also showed that the benefits of volunteering extend not only to those being served but also to the volunteers themselves. Youth from disadvantaged circumstances who volunteer their own services, for example, demonstrate more positive civic behaviors than those who do not. Volunteer work appears to increase both their prospects for future employment and the number who go on to earn at least an associate's degree.

Inside government, volunteers are sometimes thought to be a nice but not essential asset that can require more in organization and monitoring than an official with other responsibilities can handle. But as effective leaders who govern by network know, good deeds and community spirit can provide a surge of helping hands and human capital, with minimal added expense and red tape. It can take a lot of work to deploy that resource most effectively, but it's worth the effort. Whether in a time of crisis or part of the day-to-day activities of a city, citizen engagement definitely produces better and cheaper results.