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.

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