We’re in the 11th week of our Cookingham Connection series today as we hear from Tom Lundy. Lundy has been the County Manager for Catawba County, North Carolina for 35 years. He was previously the assistant county manager for the same county. Lundy obtained his MPA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Never forget that you are a servant of the people, and instill that philosophy in each of your employees. If you find one who cannot understand this philosophy, remove him for he will be no good to you or to the city. If you ever get the idea that you are ruler, you, also, will be no good to the city or to the form of government.
It’s called public service for a reason. Those of us who earn the chance—and seize the opportunity—to work for a city or county government have to realize that we’re entrusted with a responsibility to help communities grow. We’re put in a position to marshal financial and human resources. We’re able to influence the organization’s culture, which in turn governs the hundreds and thousands of interactions employees have every day with citizens. We’re able to influence how and when growth occurs. We’re able to fashion and launch long-term policies and programs that shape communities long after we’ve departed.
That’s a lot of influence. It’s a lot of power and opportunity. We can choose to use it for our own purposes, or we can use it for the greater good. We can view ourselves as always the expert, and resist opening up decision-making to employees and citizens, or we can listen more than we talk and involve more than we dictate/decide. We can tell citizens what we think they need to know, or we can be transparent so that citizens can decide what information is important to them.
Citizens used to rely on public administrators and employees as experts in their field, as the voices of reason and authority. Today, citizens often have access to as much or more information as the public administrator, and they’re not hesitant about using that knowledge to question our expertise or suggest viable solutions to community issues or problems. Today’s public administrator has to be adept at sharing instead of guarding information, and collaborating across boundaries instead of working in isolation.
When we work for the public, we should do just that—work for the public, not ourselves; it’s not about us. That means understanding our communities, our employees, and the elected officials. It means embodying the ICMA Code of Ethics and instilling the same standards of professionalism throughout the organization. It means, as Warren Bennis said, “doing the right thing, not just doing things right.” It means demanding that public employees embody customer service—fair, ethical, honest—and making sure you and your employees do whatever you legally can to help others. And where you can’t do what citizens want, tell them respectfully and truthfully.
In some cases, local government has competition from the private and non-profit sectors, and customer service and quality are critical to maintain market share in services like home health. In many cases, though, local government has a monopoly on the services it offers—citizens can’t get a building permit anywhere else; 911 is the only number for quick and complete emergency response; employees have the power to remove children from parents; etc. Especially where local government has a monopoly on service, those of us in the public sector have to guard against the mentality that we’re the only show in town, and therefore it doesn’t matter how we serve others. In fact, it matters more.
Everyone who works for a city or county government is a steward. In the lives of our communities, our time for stewardship is over in the blink of an eye. We don’t have time to waste. So, set the right tone. Be an example. Pay attention to people, their issues, the stories under the surface or behind the curtain. Be fair. Go the extra mile. Hold your employees and yourself to high standards. Treat your employees the way you’d like them to treat each other and treat citizens. If an employee or department head consistently shows that they don’t understand their responsibility to serve fairly and respectfully, move them out of their position of influence or out of the organization. If there’s credit to be given, give it to others—elected officials, employees, citizens. If there’s blame to be shouldered, shoulder it, and then make sure the same mistake or attitude doesn’t happen again.
If you find yourself slipping away from these tenets, think about how you can personally get re-energized, whether you should seek a new environment or challenge. For me personally, it means approaching work as if I have to earn my job every day, knowing that I still have lots to learn, that asking questions opens new possibilities and gives me a better sense of the people I’m serving. Because my job is to serve the public.
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.