We’re in the 16th week of our Cookingham Connection series today as we hear from Ed Zuercher. He is the City Manager for the City of Phoenix, a position he has held February 2014. Zuercher’s 20-year career with the city started as a management intern and eventually grew to include assistant city manager. Zuercher holds an MPA from the University of Kansas.
“Don’t pursue your program at a faster pace than the council, the employees, and public can follow. You will always see plenty of things to do and have plenty of changes to make, but be sure that everyone understands why you are doing this and how it will benefit the city of its government before you proceed.
A mayor I worked with a few years ago used to say about difficult zoning cases, “If you try to go fast, you’re going to go slow.” In other words, rushing the residents or City Council on a difficult land use decision involving community desires, public safety, property rights and other emotional subjects simply leads them to put on the brakes. In fact, it’s been said that managing in the local government environment is like driving a bus on which every passenger has a brake pedal.
We have to work hard to minimize unnecessary braking. Everything today—including the Fast Company magazine car insurance commercials—tells us faster is better. In cases of commodity operations like the internet or the warehouse store, faster is more desirable. Who doesn’t want to download that airfare bargain instantly? But in local government, Cookingham had it right—unlike high-speed internet, the correct speed for success in public policy is not always the fastest. We don’t work in a commodity business in local government. We work with people who have changing and conflicting values and desires.
As University of Kansas professor John Nalbandian teaches, we work on problems with “no right answers” and we navigate the conflicting values of representation, individual rights, equity and efficiency considerations. Speed doesn’t always identify the answers or balance the conflicts.
Further complicating things, answers to very complex problems don’t simply exist; they have to be reached through dialogue, give-and-take, trial-and-error, and compromise. Since none of these is necessarily fast, how do we manage in this environment? In Phoenix in 2014, we solved a $37.7 million budget deficit through a four-month process involving numerous Council meetings and over 20 public hearings, which includeed over 2,000 participants both in person and on-line.
At the same time, we negotiated new contracts and agreements with our seven employee unions and associations. The result in May—compensation concessions, small revenue increases, and cuts to administrative costs—was not exactly what I as the manager proposed in February, or even in April.
In fact, it wouldn’t have been possible for a proposal in February to be the ultimate answer. We had to have time for the Council and the community to weigh in. It took time for everyone to agree that there was a budget deficit, and then to understand the options and trade-offs. Then it took time to reach a majority consensus about the right balance between contract concessions and saving jobs, or between keeping senior programs versus raising membership rates at senior centers. And in the end, the Mayor and City Council led the community to a decision of shared solutions to solve our deficit, preserve services, and maintain investment in the future without layoffs.
Now, I am not saying that slow is good either. In a crisis, speed can be critical. When the fire is raging or the investigation is high-profile, the incident commander doesn’t have time to convene group dialogue. But even then, blind speed isn’t the answer. Seasoned investigative detectives will tell you that moving too quickly on a case can lead to shortcuts and errors that hinder prosecution or delay justice down the line. What seems like speed can become delay.
After our budget difficulties this year, I put in place a process. We call it Comprehensive Organizational Review Exercise or CORE. The purpose is for each department to engage, from top to bottom, with employees on how to do the work better and more efficiently and to decide what work is central to our mission and what isn’t.
It’s going to take the whole summer and fall. But already, groups large and small throughout our organization are talking with each other about the future, priorities, and smarter ways to work. It’s not a fast process, but it’s the right one. And ultimately, the answers reached together will be theirs, not mine. It won’t be the speed of the internet, but it will be the speed of success.
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.