Emerging Generations in Local Government – 16

Cookingham Connection - Sarah H We’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what the city manager of Phoenix, Arizona had to say about Cookingham’s 16th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Sarah Hazel. Sarah is an ICMA Local Government Management Fellow. She earned her MPA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Guidepost #16:

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…

When I decided to transition careers from the fast paced campaign world to the land of local government, I was confident that I would bring my “get it done” work approach to the public sector. See problems. See opportunities. Act. In fact, my mantra was General George Patton’s, –  “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”  I mean…why wait until tomorrow, what could be done today? And, because local government leaders have opportunities to do great big wonderful things for their employees and communities, I figured, there is no time to waste. The instant gratification loving, public service motivated millennial in me was screaming, “Let’s go!”

But there are forces at work in the public sector, which are decidedly more complex than those of the private sector – values such as accountability, transparency, responsiveness, and social equity. What may seem like a great idea and thoughtfully crafted solution can unexpectedly became controversial at a council meeting where administrators are accountable to more than staff and a single bottom line.  Public administrators are also accountable to the council and the citizens in an environment of complete transparency.

Quickly, I learned there are many reasons to do as Mr. Cookingham and Phoenix City Manager urge, “Go slow to go fast.” Here are a couple:

1) Creating space for employee engagement and input can foster new ideas and commitment.
Great feats don’t become real through the efforts of a single, person. They typically require a team effort, and team efforts take time. In practice, as a Chapel Hill intern, I witnessed the City manager commit to figuring out an employee compensation system by engaging employees and asking them about their values. Longevity? Performance? What does fair mean to them? While my Manager could have proposed a pay structure right under the budget deadline, by committing to engage employees, there was a higher chance of overall satisfaction in the selected system. The future proposal, albeit months later would be based on input, not assumptions.

2) Involving citizens, builds trust and helps to reorder priorities.
Dan Fenn Jr. wrote in the The Trusted Leader that the public leader must help the public see how they can have an impact—that it won’t win glory for the individual, but it will make a difference. It will allow us to think deeply about what we are doing and why. One cool example of this is happening right now in the City of Charlotte, through the Community Investment Plan. Over the next several years, $816.4 million in proposed community improvements will be planned, designed and implemented. A huge component of this plan is public involvement. Neighborhoods will be actively engaged from beginning to end as to how to invest in Charlotte’s future. Through that involvement, priorities will adjust, and the community will shape their neighborhoods with pride.

Thanks to some great leadership I have been fortunate enough to witness, I have seen Cookingham’s advice in practice. Sincere and open discourse among various parties might be a bit slower, but lasting programs and impacts don’t happen overnight. Therefore, this millennial is ready to engage and get to work smarter, not faster.


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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