Public Leadership Resolutions for Uncertain Times

The work that government does makes a difference in people's lives. Government leaders can inspire others by their actions.
January 2, 2019 AT 6:15 AM
The number 2019 in the snow.
By Elizabeth K. Kellar  |  Contributor
Senior Fellow with the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and director of public policy for the International City/County Management Association

We bid farewell to 2018, a year that was filled with natural disasters, dire warnings about climate change, gun violence and intense political conflict. And yet in this winter of our discontent there are signs of determination and renewal at the state and local level of government. For public officials, known for their resilience, here are some reminders for their new year's leadership resolutions:

• Communicate clearly and keep your word. Take a look at local governments, where trust is often alive and well. While anti-tax sentiment always runs high, two-thirds of the local government tax referenda on the November ballots passed. Just in California, voters approved more than 300 tax and bond measures to support local services and facilities to improve police and fire services, housing, transportation, parks and schools. Why did so many pass? Because local government leaders clearly communicated both the need and the specific purpose for the funding.

• Cultivate relationships before you need them. In every disaster, city and county managers talk about the value of the relationships they had developed before the crisis hit. Nowhere was that more in evidence than in the 9/11 attacks, when a commercial airliner crashed into the Pentagon. Arlington County, Va., was the first responder under the leadership of the county fire chief, who was the incident commander. The FBI and the military deferred to the fire chief because they trusted his capabilities and had trained with county staff. When a community experiences the devastation that a hurricane, flood or wildfire can bring, it is essential to know the people who will support the response and recovery effort. That includes all of the key governmental actors as well as those who provide support from the nonprofit and voluntary sectors.

• Put yourself in the shoes of the people you serve. This is second nature for local government leaders in disaster situations; after all, many of them have also lost their own homes or have had to figure out where their children can go to school. That kind of empathy is just as important, and needs to be cultivated, in every arena in which government actions directly affect people's lives.

• Engage your residents, staff and other stakeholders in key decisions and planning efforts. In the Dominican Republic, the International City/County Management Association engaged community-based organizations and vulnerable populations in a land-use planning process. By the end of the program, four jurisdictions had climate-adapted land-use plans; three had drafted land-use planning ordinances.

• Seek feedback, and follow up. Many well run governments routinely ask their employees and residents to provide feedback, sometimes via surveys and sometimes more informally. In a recent report published by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, researchers found examples of both strategies. The state of Michigan has conducted regular employee-engagement surveys since 2002. In response to employee feedback, the state established an employee recognition program and a leadership development program; more than 2,000 state employees have completed the leadership training. Taking a more personal approach, Minneapolis' human resources department reached out to employees, department heads, unions and elected officials to seek feedback on what the department did well, what opportunities there were to change, and what promising practices might be adopted.

• Take initiative when it counts. Local and state leaders have taken a wide range of actions to reduce emissions of fossil fuels, such as investing more in renewable energy, reducing transportation choke points and passing anti-idling laws. They are investing more in mitigation to combat rising sea levels and protect areas prone to flooding. Nearly one-third of local governments have adopted sustainability plans, according to a nationwide survey by ICMA.

• Do the right thing and keep focused on the mission. The work that government does makes a difference in people's lives. It is a privilege to serve others, and it is imperative to serve them with honor and integrity. That's just as true for the rank and file in government as it is for leaders. As Mary Biere, the human resources manager for Johnson County, Kan., puts it in a paraphrase of the Athenian Oath, successful candidates are those who understand that "it is our responsibility to leave this community better than we found it" and to be "committed to doing the right thing for the right reason, for the public good."