There are two primary ways that local governments get better. The first is a crisis – financial calamity, or a natural disaster, or a crime committed within the organization – that forces self-examination and provides the opportunity for changes that might not be possible in better times.
The other source of change in local government is its leaders – in other words, you.
There’s a natural bias in public organizations to never change. There is no competition spurring us to get better. There are no shareholders demanding that we find new ways to increase profits. Our culture is collaborative, which means that decision-making slows as we satisfy every objection before the group agrees to act.
There are also big risks inherent in changing local government – failure is rarely rewarded in public service, even when it provides valuable lessons, and it can bring unwanted attention from the media and constituents. And public servants –including many leaders – are often attracted to the field because it promises certainty, job security and predictability.
But leading change in local government is worth the risk. Indeed, your job as a leader is to take the risks necessary to improve the organization you lead.
Let’s start with the premise that every local government can work better than it does. Even the ones that win all the awards and are constantly looking for ways to improve can become more effective and efficient. And while we as leaders want to encourage the people we work with, we must also constantly look for opportunities to improve. Every manager must strive to balance acknowledging employees’ good work and challenging them to be ever better.
A good leader juggles a host of concerns simultaneously – including governance, community engagement and relationships with elected officials – but getting the basics of management right is an important first step toward improvement. I often counsel local-government leaders to map their management system as a first step and engage their managers in making it better.
Your management system includes all the systems, formal and informal, used to plan and manage the organization’s work and the people who carry it out. When describing a management system, a leader must look at:
- How strategic planning and work planning occur;
- How the budget is developed, along with any additional financial planning;
- How the government communicates with the governing board, employees and the public;
- How Council policy is supported;
- How performance is measured;
- How employee performance is evaluated;
- How employees are recognized; and
- How organizational development occurs, especially training and succession planning.
Reviewing a local government’s management system is a straightforward process that nearly always uncovers multiple opportunities for improvement. As an added benefit, it gives the local-government leader and the rest of the management team a baseline knowledge of where the organization stands and a way of charting progress. After completing a management system review, leaders can use it to prioritize changes. Those changes can include:
- Clarifying who is accountable for results;
- Improving the discipline of work planning by better defining initiatives and projects, specifying completion details and following up;
- Measuring performance intelligently;
- And providing personal leadership by engaging talented people in your organization.
Most city and county managers enter public service because they want to serve the public. They rise to positions of leadership because they see it as a way to have an even greater impact on their communities. The easiest route for a leader is usually to lie low and not rock the boat. But seeing a path to improvement and leading people down it is more rewarding and almost always worth the risks – and it sure beats waiting for disaster to strike!
ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER:
JERRY NEWFARMER, FORMER CITY MANAGER OF CINCINNATI, OHIO, AND SAN JOSE, CALIF., IS PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE GOVERNMENT-CONSULTING FIRM MANAGEMENT PARTNERS. HE ALSO SERVED AS CITY MANAGER OF FRESNO, CALIF., AND ASSISTANT CITY MANAGER OF OAKLAND, CALIF. NEWFARMER, A NATIONAL LEADER IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT, HAS BEEN ACTIVE IN ICMA THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER.