Emerging Generations in Local Government – 8

Cookingham Connection - Kirsten SWe’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what a UNC professor had to say about Cookingham’s 8th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Kirsten Silveira. Kirsten is a Budget Management Analyst for the City of Baltimore, Maryland and an MPA candidate at the University of Kansas. She is also a member of Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL).

Guidepost #8:

Treat everyone in the city, friend or foe, as if your success depended on the manner in which you handled his problem. I have often told my employees to consider everyone with whom they talk to be a member of the city council, and by doing this, they will give their best to all.

You’re busy. The budget director needs that cost assumption on the new FOP contract, one of your agencies just submitted a requisition to renew a blanket contract for $300,000 more than that account’s budget authority, you have a meeting with the Director of Finance and the Mayor’s Office in an hour, and haven’t finished the memo the meeting is about. The list goes on.

The phone rings. It’s not a city office number.

Now, you’ve got some options.

  1. Let it go to voicemail you’ll deal with them later,
  2. Answer it and make it clear they are interrupting, or
  3. You peel your eyes away from the spreadsheet and answer the phone.

I answered. The voice on the other end frantically starts talking about the very ill stray cat in her backyard. As an animal lover, I’m sympathetic and hope the cat gets to a vet. As a budget analyst, I am not sure how to help… “can someone from your office come help me,” she asks.

I tell her “Ma’am, I’m sorry. This is the budget office. But give me a second and I’ll look up the phone number for the shelter.” So I Google it, provide her with the right sequence of numbers and say, “If you call and, for some reason, don’t get through, call me back and I’ll see if I can find some more information for you.”

Now, this happens to me all the time. Somehow, the City’s 311 (frequently) mixes up the last four digits of a phone number and sends residents to the budget office instead of the city animal shelter. I’ve tried calling 311 myself and correcting the information, but no such luck. I could get annoyed that I have been pulled away from pressing matters, but instead, it pulled me back to reality.

We’re public servants and to that citizen, at that moment, the most important thing the city could do for her was to come get the sick animal out of her yard. Though the realities of the financial issues I was dealing with would indirectly impact her life, that was not my role in our brief relationship. I could have sent her back to 311 to wait for an operator and maybe given the right number, but that isn’t what L.P. Cookingham would have done.

In a 1956 Public Management magazine, the former ICMA President and long-time city manager published his guideposts for all to consume. As Ammons shared with you, Cookingham was known for his way with people and his ability to connect with individuals from all walks of life. His eight guidepost suggests that young public servants adopt the philosophy that all residents are as important as the City Council. Cookingham wrote these words for future city managers.

Unlike Ammons, I never had the pleasure of meeting Cookingham, but I have a feeling he intended that all public servants read these words. I believe he would have wanted that in each conversationwhether it be with a political figure, a colleague, a bureaucrat, a citizen or a janitortreat the present issue like it is the only thing that matters.

The frustration many find with government is they are monolithic and seemingly impenetrable. Siloed and inefficient. If I had told the citizen that I couldn’t help and she needed to call 311 again, I would have been confirming that perception.

Remember Cookingham’s challenge, his wise words, the next time your phone rings and you feel like you’re too busy to answer.

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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