We’re in the 17th week of our Cookingham Connection series today as we hear from Kurt Bressner. He is the Florida Senior Advisor for ICMA, a position he has held since September 2011. During Bressner’s 38-year career in the public sector he has served as city/village manager for several cities in Florida and Illinois. Bressner holds an MPA from Northern Illinois University.
“Never put in writing anything you can’t prove. Someday someone might embarrass you with it.
I kept a copy of Mr. Cookingham’s “Food for Thought: Guideposts for City Managers” in my top desk drawer throughout my career as a City Manager. Originally published in 1956 in ICMA’s Public Management, this document was reprinted in 1975, also in Public Management. That yellowed paper version stayed with me throughout my career as a city manager of four communities over 33 years. Now retired, I still keep it handy. In 2008, I asked that ICMA reprint the “Guideposts” for a third time. The original advice by Mr. Cookingham is still pertinent and crucial to effective public leadership. This document remains a relevant, reliable source of guidance for all levels of government service.
First, consider a simple, implied corollary to this Guideline: Choose effective words. The vocabulary of government business is complex and easily misconstrued. The use of jargon can mystify the public. One simple remedy is to remember your audience: Your written words should neither intimidate nor insult your readers.
Managing government has moved into the rapid-fire digital arena. Memoranda and letters are no longer the primary methods of communication. Today, the common channels are emails, texts, tweets, and online posts, each form with varying strengths and weaknesses. Compared to conventional letters or memos, email and social media present special challenges, including limited scope of message and easy opportunities for misuse of context. Brevity does not offer structure for including an extensive recap of facts and context.
Furthermore, even a 140-character Tweet based on a false premise, untruth, or inaccuracy is as damaging as a lengthy agenda packet memo with the same deficiencies and often garners greater circulation than a conventional memo. Failing to back up written communication without complete, accurate facts and full disclosure can redirect a city manager’s path from success to job change. I suggest that regardless of the method of written word, the importance of a “facts cabinet” remains the same. For every issue or matter that involves the public’s business, the facts, context, and reasons for change must be readily available through careful notes, corollary documents, and files. The more that this facts cabinet is digitally available, the easier it is to manage. Elected officials and the public will certainly call for back-up proof as a public policy matter continues through its decision cycle. Similarly, the press will ask for information routinely. The sad reality is that facts, context, or reasons for change may not find their way into the story. The chances of deliberate distortion increase in blogs. Nevertheless, in all cases, the proof must be provided or readily available in government documents. Visualize a cabinet of facts, context, and reasons for change in everything you write. You must be able to prove the facts forming the basis of the issue definition and evaluation. Ideally, these facts are a direct component of a report. Of the several methods of written communication, a conventional memo provides much friendlier turf to include or embed accurate facts, context, and reasons for change.
Credibility as a manager –not only on a specific issue in real time, but also in general over time– relates to this Guideline, too. Repeated gaps in facts or false interpretation of facts is often perceived as conduct unbecoming a public official, resulting in short tenure with multiple and possibly declining career stops. Sadly, conduct at the national level that obscures the facts of an issue is not infrequent. Once the microscope of media commentary magnifies the situation, the backstroking begins; but the damage to the organization or to the individual in charge has already been accomplished. In most cases, an individual “takes the hit” for the organization’s elasticity with or obstruction of truth. After solemn promises by replacement leadership to do better, the issue then fades away. Yet subsequent public cynicism continues to taint the perception of local government with damaging disbelief.
In summary, modern communication methods and media demand close attention to Guideline #17: Routinely and resolutely clarify the issues you face with accurate facts, context, and reasons for change while practicing neutral, full disclosure to strengthen your managing skills and solidify your career path.
I close with these words of Lao Tzu about the path of truth, a worthy addendum to Mr. Cookingham’s wise Guidelines:
Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habit.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.
― Lao Tzu
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.