Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Intellectual Honesty

One of the most important qualities a city manager or county administrator can possess is intellectual honesty.  For a broader perspective, this list of "ten signs of intellectual honesty" may be useful.

To be intellectually honest, we have to admit 1) we exist within a culture; 2) this culture influences us; 3) we don't know how the culture influences us; 4) we all are guilty of confirmation bias.

In my experience, the vast majority of city managers and county administrators are devoted public servants.  We all strive to lead local governments that are engaged, responsive, transparent, and ethical.  We believe in the power of government to do good and stand prepared for the moments a community sees a problem and decides, "We must do something!" 

We rally.  We inspire.  We support.  We agree that something must be done and to dedicate ourselves to doing it!

The danger for local government leaders is failing to recognize that the "something" may be worse than doing nothing.  Working shoulder-to-shoulder with kind, caring, and dedicated public employees can be terrifically exciting, meaningful, and fulfilling.  With so many intelligent and devoted people working so selflessly... how could we possibly fail?

And yet local government often does.

Intellectual honesty requires us to ask tough questions and not be content with the "echo chamber" answers we often receive from our fellow professionals (or professional associations).  As a profession, public administration would benefit by asking "Why?" far more often, and exploring the possible answers without so many preconceived notions (including that of our own nobility).

It's a tough time for intellectual honesty in America.  Public discourse is dominated by hyper-partisan rhetoric.  Far too many individuals in positions of responsibility--in government and the Fourth Estate--seem to have abandoned even a passing commitment to facts or truth.  There is a palpable sense that large swaths of the body politic have simply given up on expecting intellectual honesty from anyone in power.

City managers and county administrators can be advocates for intellectual honesty, but only if we begin with our own profession.

A tough gig

Anyone who thinks serving as city manager or county administrator is "just another job" might benefit from reading this article from the Tacoma New Tribune.

One cannot blame the reporters--Derrick Nunnally and Candice Ruud--for the headline, " Will Tacoma’s next city manager be a downgrade?"  Unless something has changed since I studied journalism in the 80s, copy editors write headlines.

I will take Nunnally and Ruud to task for going with an "if it bleeds, it leads" approach to writing an article.  Particularly disappointing is the observation, "During the past three years, three of the four (finalists for the Tacoma city manager job) have applied to manage cities smaller than Tacoma and been passed over."

Neither Nunnally nor Ruud have any idea why a given candidate was not offered a position.  They did not participate in the interviews or the subsequent discussions.  They do not know who the competing candidates were (internal or external) or how those candidates performed in their interviews.  There are numerous reasons a person might be "passed over" for a job opportunity that have no bearing on a candidate's qualifications.

This is just another example of the tired bias--bigger is better.  I will cut Nunnally and Ruud a bit of slack because they exist in the world of journalism where writers aspire to larger media outlets.  As a profession, journalism tends to see working for the Washington Post or New York Times as superior to the Tacoma New Tribune.

Tenure in a larger organization--whether that is a newspaper or a local government--is not a reliable indicator of talent.  The hiring process is far to subjective to draw any conclusions.  This is particularly true for city managers and county administrators where elected officials make the final decision.  An unsuccessful candidacy should not be held against a person regardless of their field.

Read more here:

Stop signs

Talking about stop signs is public discourse in miniature.  Few things are more ubiquitous than the white-on-red octagonal signs.  To engine...