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What does this mean?

Defining the Modern Community

main street

What comes to mind when you think about community? The roads you drive on, the churches and schools family and friends attend, or the parks and stores you visit on weekends?

What comes to mind when you think about community? The roads you drive on, the churches and schools family and friends attend, or the parks and stores you visit on weekends? Whatever your specific images, these elements form an interconnected web of people, structures and organizations that offer a shared place and set of goals to build our lives.

But communities today look much different than they did even a few years ago. Today’s communities — and the organizations that govern them — are facing a tectonic shift caused by the pandemic as well as cultural and civil strife. As masks come off and many return to offices, local governments and community members are still adjusting to a new reality.

Modern leaders have two choices: wait to see how our communities settle after this shift or enact changes to create better solutions. This era provides a backdrop to adopt new goals, roles and strategies — to create a new definition of modern community. In this series, we’ll be looking at modern communities, elements they commonly share, the unprecedented challenges they face today and how local governments can use these opportunities to adopt lasting change and improvements.

HOW HAS THE ROLE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT CHANGED?

For many local governments, disaster or business continuity planning worked as intended — though the suddenness of COVID-19 surges and closures and the length of the crisis meant many governments faced more than one challenge at a time. In one example, Clinton, Iowa, experienced a destructive storm called a derecho in late summer 2020, losing power lines when the scope and duration of COVID-19 response was just becoming clearer.

(Clinton City Clerk Lisa Frederick was named to the Diligent 2021 Modern Governance 100 list for her city’s use of iCompass to manage communications during the crisis. Read more.)

“This experience has brought planning for the continuity of operations to the forefront,” says Mary Ann Borgeson, chairwoman of the Douglas County, Neb., Board of Commissioners, in a CISCO/Governing paper titled “Reimagining Community Continuity and Resilience.” “It has given us opportunities to think outside of the box in how we can continue providing essential services.”

ELEMENTS OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT

Consider how these common elements of local communities have been affected by the pandemic and current events.

The school board

Schools, in their unique position at the nexus of families, government and business, have been profoundly affected by the pandemic and its concurrent crises. “The Great Resignation” has particularly touched schools, with the departure of teachers and reduced availability of substitutes, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others.

These challenges must be addressed by school board members to create a competitive hiring environment with limited budgets, as well as to find solutions for the underlying conflicts. Meanwhile, already-high demands for transparency have only been increased by streaming meetings and other efforts to make board deliberations accessible.

Parks and recreation

Like our schools, parks and recreation departments have struggled with the loss of workers and often find it difficult to meet salary, benefits and flexibility expectations set by other employers. Youth participation in sports has also been on the decline even before the pandemic, according to a study by the Aspen Institute. Parks departments must justify their value to residents wary of tax increases and look for new ways to communicate their stewardship of budget dollars.

Transportation

Early in the pandemic, the first visible signs of change were deserted streets, often-idle trains and buses, and a general eeriness that came with reduced transportation use, especially in population-dense areas.

With return-to-work underway for many, activity has returned — but it looks different. Transportation departments are dealing not only with new ridership patterns, but with the rise of new technologies such as driverless cars. Transit departments such as California’s Antelope Valley Transit Authority are implementing or considering alternative-energy vehicles as infrastructures shift to support hybrid and electric transportation options. These solutions require both forward thinking and careful budgeting.

Zoning and city planning

Out of necessity or changing priorities, many citizens revisited how and where they live as a result of the pandemic. Trends in mixed-use development and urban issues around accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and other answers to density issues are changing the community horizon.

Zoning boards and urban planners must stay aware of changing trends in community management and how issues such as climate change, demographic shifts and housing costs affect community residents, business owners and employees.

Health department

In the last two years, civic health departments have played a large role in the understanding of COVID-19 risks, dissemination of information and formation of regulations and guidelines in how to address the disease.

Local health departments have had to manage understanding of changing guidance from federal and worldwide health entities and create recommendations that are appropriate for vastly different communities.

Public safety

The dovetail of COVID-19 with highly visible examples of civil unrest created a unique situation for local governments working to ensure residents that their communities were safe. In many towns and cities, police personnel were shifted to monitor stay-at-home orders, border patrol or other pandemic-related restrictions, while at the same time high-profile incidents inflamed already tense relationships with law enforcement.

City hall

City governments have been a first line of response to the pandemic, working with local health departments to implement appropriate responses to manage local infection and hospitalization rates. This role has required councilors, mayors and others to have accurate, consistent data about what is going on in their communities. Moreover, a surge in ransomware and other cyber crimes has targeted local governments at a high rate, leaving these entities, who often do not have the resources to adequately prevent or respond to these attacks.

We’ll be taking a deeper dive into these in this series.

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS' BIGGEST CHALLENGES TODAY

Local governments face multiple struggles today. William Peduto, Pittsburgh mayor, summed it up in the Governing/Cisco paper: “We are facing deficits; unemployment; and economic insecurity for individuals, families and small businesses. We can’t forget the human element and how this affects people in the community.”

These challenges are intimately familiar to those in today’s communities — and they are just a few:

  • Budgets. Federal aid provided some relief to local governments, many of whom saw tax income (particularly income and sales tax revenue) decrease sharply during the pandemic. But ongoing cuts to public education, underemployment and other factors, including long-term repercussions from the "Great Recession," have left city councils and others struggling to fund basic community needs.
  • Cybersecurity. There are many reasons why local governments are increasingly targeted by cyber criminals: the sheer number, the fact that they store so much sensitive information and the often-limited budget dollars for protection and experienced IT staff.
  • Misinformation. Trust for public officials must be earned, and local governments are finding that old methods of communication via email and untelevised meetings fall short when reassuring constituents that budget dollars are being spent wisely and voting outcomes reflect community values.
  • Inclusivity. One silver lining that came from the pandemic was the way communication changed — online meetings, consistent electronic messaging — created a more inclusive experience for many citizens. Local governments reported increased attendance at streamed meetings. Meanwhile, many communities are looking for ways to elevate voices of those who have been underrepresented both as the governed and the governing.

THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY IN THE MODERN COMMUNITY

There is hope in addressing the challenges and thoughtfully building a new modern community. Technology can provide solutions in how local government representatives stay informed, consistent and transparent and are able to take action to meet the needs of the community.

For example, Syracuse, N.Y., recently implemented “smart” snowplow management that gives residents a real-time understanding of road conditions. Cleveland created a chief innovation and technology officer position, hiring Froilan Roy C. Fernando as part of an effort to fill “key positions in the mayor’s Cabinet to reimagine how city hall operates, break down silos, better connect departments and reinforce a commitment to hiring emerging and experienced leaders.”

Today’s community is in transformation, and it’s up to its leaders to take an active role in building the next stage. In our series, we’ll be taking a deeper look at each of the local government areas, the challenges they face and strategies and tools that can support these entities with understanding, action and communication.

About Diligent

Diligent Community is the next-generation modern governance and civic engagement solution for public organizations that simplifies the end-to-end agenda and meeting management process. Easily manage complex governance tasks in remote and live environments and significantly reduce prep time to focus on what’s important. Our unified experience empowers board administrators and leaders to advocate for their mission while seamlessly connecting with the public to address critical community issues. Learn more at diligent.com/community.

Diligent is the global leader in modern governance, providing SaaS solutions across governance, risk, compliance and ESG. Serving more than 1 million users from over 25,000 customers around the world, we empower transformational leaders with technology, insights and confidence to drive greater impact and lead with purpose. Learn more at diligent.com.
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