Emerging Generations in Local Government – 4

Cookingham Connection - Ashley GWe’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what a city manager had to say about Cookingham’s 4th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Ashley Graff, the economic development specialist for Gresham, Oregon.

Guidepost #4:

Remember that the average fellow with whom you talk, whether he is a member of the council, one of the city’s staff, or a citizen, does not know as much about the job of municipal administration as you know now or will know in the years ahead; so don’t get too far beyond him, for he will not be able to follow you.

As Cal Horton wrote last week, we can interpret Cookingham’s 4th guidepost a couple ways. Like Mr. Horton, I also perceived the tone of status and importance evident in Cookingham’s recommendation and felt hesitant about endorsing the idea that a city manager is somehow better or smartergifted such that s/he may leave ordinary folks behind. Mr. Horton concluded that the era of “Manager as Expert” has passed, saying “I think it is not a good foundation for the kind of facilitative leadership that I believe managers should practice.” I agree. However, in thinking about Cookingham’s 4th guidepost, I believe we can still unearth some guidance that will serve local government leaders in today’s municipal environment.

Cookingham tells us that the average fellow doesn’t know as much about our jobs as we do. In many cases, I would say he’s right. Yet I contend that the average fellow doesn’t need to know because it isn’t his job. Each of us offers our own expertise and it’s that combination of contributions that helps us solve problems and build vibrant communities. As I read Cookingham’s recommendation, I remember that each of us is different, and I distill his guidepost to its simplest elementcommunication. I hear him say, “Tailor your message.” Clear communication so often illuminates a path forward through the many challenges we face in local government.

The role of council is to hear constituents and set policy direction. City staff use their skill and judgment to carry out policy, and citizens contribute by participating in the process and making needs known. Each role and each person adds their own expertise, experience and perspective. A city manager cannot do it all, but s/he can be an expert facilitator. “Increasingly, the city manager’s role has become that of a facilitator and alliance builder, promoting and nurturing partnerships…” So writes John Nalbandian, University of Kansas Professor Emeritus at the School of Public Affairs and Administration, in Politics and Administration in Local Government.

In my mind, a facilitative leader recognizes the differing perspectives at play, works to tease out the needs and motives of stakeholders, and tailors the message so that it is understood within the context of the listener’s assumptions. If I may make my own assumption, perhaps this is what Cookingham meant when he cautioned us to not “get too far beyond.”

The one piece that I see as missing from Cookingham’s messageor at least my interpretation of itis the part about listening. He covers it in guidepost #15 when discussing council meetings (“keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut”), but it’s not present here in the more general sense. Clear communication isn’t possible without listening. Particularly from the perspective of those new to the field, listening is our best tool to learn all aspects of municipal administrationjust as it’s our best tool in becoming clear communicators and facilitative leaders.

Thanks to Mr. Cookingham for his wisdom. Whether his words immediately ring true or instead we endeavor to reveal meaning that endures in today’s municipal environment, his 22 guideposts stand as a testament to the breadth of his knowledge and influence in the field of city management.

The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.

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