Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Is local government the "high ground"?

I recently read a well-intended short essay entitled, "Is #localgov Part of 'The Swamp'?"  The article by Miranda Lutzow offered three ways local governments can differentiate themselves, "We're accountable.  We're accessible.  We care."

My initial response via LinkedIn:


"What we think--as mostly professional city/county administrators--is far less telling than what citizens think. While polls generally show folks more approving of local governments than state or federal, we have our share of highly visible failings.

Bell, California? Flint, Michigan? Ferguson, Missouri, where the local government's dependency on court-driven revenues contributed heavily to serious racial and policing issues. Pick any city in California where retired city administrators are earning $200k+/year in pension payments while municipal services are suffering.

It's easy to dismiss these as aberrations, but I think an argument can be made that they are systemic problems. And the not-so-pleasant truth is that our profession has fallen short in addressing them."


Ms. Lutzow generously responded, sharing her opinion that the examples I provided are indeed aberrations and asking, "If you believe mismanagement truly is systemic, how do you think we, as a profession, should go about addressing systemic failures?"

Active mismanagement is one kind of failure.  It's easy enough to focus on headlines like those coming out of Bell, California, in 2010.  The larger problem our profession's apparent inability to move the needle on transformational problems (rather than just nibbling on the incremental ones). 

Let's take public pensions as an example. State and local government pensions. The cumulative level of unfunded liabilities has been estimated at $5 trillion. Trillion. With a "T."
  
It's easy enough to blame the pension crisis on politicians, but that's a bit like blaming the owners of the White Star Lines for the Titanic.  Public administrators are at the helm of local (and state) governments.  It is our responsibility to manage beyond the election-to-election focus and lead ethical and financially sustainable organizations.

The amount of pension debt is staggering. And the "salt in the wound" is every story citizens read about pension spiking. I can understand why everyday folks feel like we're either not competent enough to stop the financial bleeding or are corrupt enough to take advantage of the system.  (And closing lemonade stands doesn't help us either.)

The meta-idea of Washington, D.C. as "the swamp" is about far more than individual corruption.  It is about the widespread perception that government cannot (or will not) solve the transformational problems we face from community to nation.  Local governments may be more highly regarded than state or federal bureaucracies but a high point in the swamp is still swampy.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Dignity Culture

Author Ron Bailey does a good job of summarizing a theme of an academic article by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning.  At the risk of oversimplifying, Campbell and Manning discuss the evolution of conflict and social control.  I will gloss over the "honor" model, to capture the "dignity" culture.
 
"But during the 19th century, most Western societies began the moral transition toward what the authors call dignity cultures, in which all citizens are legally endowed with equal and 'unalienable' rights. In such a culture, one's honor does not depend upon one's reputation. Having a thick skin and shrugging off slights thus come to be seen as virtues, because they help maintain social peace."

Of course, serious conflicts cannot always be resolved privately. In dignity cultures, when a person's rights are violated, he may as a last resort seek recourse from third parties, like courts and police, which are empowered to wield violence on victims' behalf. Still, because dignity cultures practice tolerance, they're much more peaceful than honor cultures."

Campbell and Manning observe the phenomena of microaggressions as an indicator of a movement to a third model of conflict and social control: victimhood.  I will lazily quote Bailey again,

"A victimhood culture combines an honor culture's quickness to take offense with an overdependence on the nonvoluntary institutions that serve as a dignity culture's last resort. If Campbell, Manning, and Horwitz are right about the direction American society is headed, we're in for an increase in social conflict, and an ever-larger and more intrusive government tasked with trying to suppress that social conflict, in years to come."

City managers and county administrators tend to be "apex predators" of activist local governments.  No matter what the problems, managers often try to solve them often without any contemplating the proper role of government or making an honest assessment if we might make the problem worse. 

Rarely does one hear a senior public manager opine that perhaps some residents just need to develop thicker skins.  And in perfect candor, that is precisely the message some citizens should hear.  Government should not be a cudgel or axe wielded against neighbors.  City and county leaders are in a strong position to to affirm the dignity culture, to encourage informal resolutions, and to promote tolerance.  For this to happen, public administrators need to go beyond the technical, narrow, and "safe" offerings of professional organizations like ICMA and engage in larger debates.

Government isn't always the answer... and holding that belief makes me the contrarian administrator.

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