I recently facilitated a city council retreat to set goals and priorities leading into their budget process. One council member strongly advocated for “the lowest tax rate in the region.” The Mayor responded with an incredibly thoughtful and wise explanation regarding the need to link tax rate decisions to both current and future needs (such as aging infrastructure) and that a tax rate should not be an end in and of itself, but a means to accomplish the policy goals of the council and the quality of life goals of the community.
This wise Mayor understood that the tax rate is an important part of the equation to be deliberated, but just one part. A one dimensional focus on the tax rate empowers bad decision making. It is like awarding the cheapest bid for new police cars, but ignoring that the cars included in the lowest bid did not include engines.
The budget is not a financial document so much as a policy document which has financial implications. And the tax rate provides the means to implement the policy decisions of the elected officials… but it should not be an end in and of itself.
A one dimensional obsession with the tax rate, unaccompanied by an understanding that it has a direct impact on the type and quality of services delivered reminds me of the little boy visiting his grandfather who was an avid baseball fan. They were watching the game together when the doorbell rang. The grandfather got up and asked the boy to watch the game and tell him what happened when he got back. When the grandfather returned, he asked what the score was. “Five to four” the boy replied. “In whose favor?” he asked. The boy thought a moment and replied “The fives.”
When the only question is “do we have the lowest tax rate?” the answer is like the little boy who knew the score but not what the numbers really meant. An effective budget process helps the governing body ask the right series of questions to understand underlying implications and in so doing advance their policy goals:
- “What services do we want to deliver?” allows a governing body to answer the philosophical questions of what business lines their organization should be in.
- “How are we delivering these services?” allows a governing body to address efficiency and effectiveness as well as the level of quality they are committed to.
- “Who should we be delivering the services to?” allows a governing body to wrestle with different service configurations for different populations such as central versus neighborhood libraries and non-resident utilization of city services.
- “What are we willing to pay to provide these services?” allows the governing body to determine if they are really ready to pay for what they say they want. If the governing body is unwilling to set the tax rate at a level required to deliver the array of services at the desired quality of service level, then the governing body should rethink whether they want to quit providing a service, whether they want to provide it at a lower quality level, or whether they do not want to provide it as broadly.
- “What are the long term implications of our intended funding level for these services?” provides a fiscal stewardship reality check. What looks like a fiscally conservative decision in the context of a two year time horizon often looks like fiscal irresponsibility when considered over a 20 year time horizon (think under-funding infrastructure needs). Evaluating and understanding the long term implications of current funding decisions is an essential and routine part of any responsible budgeting process.
Asking the right questions in the right order equips governing bodies to engage in more sensible budget deliberations to set tax rates that ensure both fiscal responsibility and a vibrant and healthy future.
In electing me to office, my fellow citizens have entrusted me with the sacred duty of shaping the future of our community. Because I am committed to creating a future that is brighter and healthier and more beneficial to all citizens than when I was called to lead, I will:
- Base my decisions on the next generation more than the next election, committed to the ideal that my loyalty must be to the entire community (both now and in the future) and not merely to those who got me elected.
- Focus on mission, vision and values as the benchmark for my decisions and recognize that my responsibility is the pursuit of the greatest good for the entire community and not the satisfaction of any particular group’s agenda.
- Make decisions based on fact based evidence and not allow myself to be manipulated into bad decisions for the future based on the decibel level of critics.
- Recognize that “it takes a smart man to know where he is stupid” and have the wisdom to be smart. Accordingly, I will value those who have the courage to tell me what they really think and will listen sincerely to those who disagree with me to truly understand their perspective, recognizing that understanding other perspectives makes me a better leader.
- Embrace my responsibility to govern rather than to manage; recognizing that if I am doing staff’s job I am not doing my job, while also understanding and embracing the appropriately exercised governance role of holding staff accountable.
- Place a greater emphasis on solutions than on problems; while refusing to offer solutions before I understand the problem.
- Understand that mutual trust is the foundation for everything and that if I refuse to trust others they will be unable to trust me.
- Protect the integrity of the process more than the rightness of my position; I will fight hard for my issue but then unify behind the governing body when the decision is made because the decision was made with integrity of process, even if I disagree with the outcome.
- Understand that my deeply held beliefs, values and positions will be strengthened, not compromised by courteous, respectful and civil discourse. I will not treat someone as the enemy just because we disagree.
- Treat everyone with dignity and respect because of who I am as a leader… not because of how they treat me or what I think about them.
- Be a role model for civility. I will not treat my colleagues or staff in any way that I would be embarrassed if my five year old child treated someone the same way.
As part of my MBA program at Texas Tech (Wreck ‘em), I am taking a Business Analytics course. Recently, we did an exercise in class where we had to rank how certain we were about answers to random trivia questions (80% sure the answer is A, etc.). It looked like this…
Answer: A or B
Confidence in your answer: 50-100%
(Obviously, if it is less than 50% you would choose the other answer.)
After we completed the questionnaire, the instructor called out the correct answers and we tallied the results to show which we answered correctly/incorrectly and how accurate we were when we guessed our confidence level in our answer. Some of you may already realize this… but we were ALL over-confident. Everyone in the entire room, law school graduates, CPA’s, CEO’s, future CEO’s, and one Managing Director of Development and Collaboration were all more positive that we knew the correct answer than we really did. (I think my statistic was something like when I say I am 70% sure, I am only correct 30% of the time. Scary right??)
Fortunately, for this defeated group of students, this was exactly the point the instructor was trying to prove. We rely on gut instinct and intuition, and we are wrong… A LOT. Then, once the facts do show that we are indeed incorrect, we actually rationalize our error (typically using extenuating circumstances beyond our control). We say things like, “that would have been successful, but we ended up having to switch gears to focus on something else” or “it really was a great idea, but the customer base ended up needing something else…” or “nobody could have predicted that downturn in the economy.” Next, we repeat this situation, time and time again.
So, how do we overcome this over-confidence? Well, the answer is really not that black and white. We can make use of metrics, data, and algorithms, but we have to be careful. As Mark Twain once said, there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” but, numbers can be powerful and algorithms are more accurate than our gut feeling (seriously, it is true, read this). When you track data over a period of time, find trends, form algorithms and analyze, you are able to look at results in a more unemotional state that lets you make truly informed decisions without your own preconceived notions, desires and bias weighing in. This type of decision-making can also lead to greater efficiency organization wide, because instead of multiple people using debate and brainstorming (or worse, group think), you can implement tools and processes for making quick and accurate decisions.
That said the POWER of over-confidence is actually very beneficial to an organization. Yes, you heard that correctly! When looking back over the course of history, we see inventions and innovations like the first car, first flight, and medical advancements. It is clear that without some creative humans setting lofty goals, brainstorming, and trying again, and again, and again (despite the overwhelming statistics showing they would fail), we would not have progressed as a society like we have. Innovation is the key when starting new initiatives and staying on the leading edge (being in the 16%). Especially in local government, it would be detrimental to eliminate or even stifle the creativity that over-confidence brings to the organization. Sometimes success is not about what would be supported through numbers and data, because only a human can make a JUDGMENT call.
All of this is to say, while we all think we are more correct than we really are, it is important to acknowledge and understand and use it to our advantage. Leaders in local government face an even more unique challenge, because while most are driven to serve the public and create a learning organization, they are also focused on streamlining operations and overall efficiency. As leaders, we must find the right balance to utilize the over-confidence to spur innovation, while being aware of the impact over-confidence has on accurate decision-making.
My boss, Ron Holifield, often says, “I would rather try ten things and only succeed at five than to try three things and succeed 100% of the time.” This is a truly innovative approach and has allowed the entire company to take risks and think outside the box.
So, what are you doing in your organization to overcome over-confidence? Are you using it to spur innovation?
Managing Director of Development and Collaboration
Immediately before guests come to visit, our household is thrown into a hurricane of cleaning, picking up toys, and folding the clean laundry that has usually been in the hallway for over a week (or at least hiding it). I completely stress about making the house look presentable. My hospitality skills focus on what others think of me and barely include ensuring that there are clean sheets on the guest bed and clean towels in the bathroom that guests are forced to share with my children.
This past weekend, my husband’s family had a reunion and we were overnight guests at his cousin’s home. Everything about the entire weekend was about making the guests feel comfortable, which completely changed my view on hospitality.
When we arrived, we were each given a bag with a towel for the pool, water bottle, flashlight, lip balm, and snacks for the kids – everything that we needed for the weekend and, of course, did not bring. Our guest room was extremely relaxing with an amazing view of the mountains. The room had the Wi-Fi password posted on the wall, water, a coffee maker, milk, “busy” toys for the kids, iPhone chargers, soaps, shampoo, etc. I felt completely relaxed and that I did not need to ask the hosts for every little thing that I needed to complete our stay. The hosts spent time thinking about my family and the event and what we may need to make our stay positive and comforting.
City halls are generally a place for all of the citizens of a community. City halls should be a place of openness and pride for a community – not only a place to house bureaucrats. But, how open is city hall? Do we focus on what others think of city hall? Does it reflect the community? Do your citizens feel welcomed there?
What can you do to be good hosts to your community? Ask yourself what your guests need for a positive and comforting experience at city hall.
Perhaps it is extending hours to facilities for citizens working outside of your community. Perhaps it is nighttime or weekend recreation activities for dual-income families. Perhaps it is enhanced social media for your younger generations. Perhaps it is expanding your technology to reach the opinions and thoughts of citizens who are unable to attend an evening town hall meeting. Perhaps it is offering translation services that reflect the languages spoken in your community. Perhaps it is easy access to your billing and payment system. Perhaps it is extra time with code officers or planners before a small issue wastes money for a homeowner. Perhaps it is a warm bench and a glass of hot coffee in the winter.
Redefine city hall’s hospitality role in your community. How can we all be better hosts?
Executive Search Manager
I have been fortunate to work for and with great city management leaders. My career was given a start by a city manager after I told him that I had no idea what he was talking about during the interview. Then, there was the city manager that challenged me professionally and gave me my first big promotion and the city manager who literally tiled my kitchen floor and comforted us during a concerning pregnancy.
There are numerous other examples from leaders from within our profession who have taken the time to invest in me, my family, and my career. Whether career advice or encouragement in passing from leaders and colleagues, or the gift of years of advice, encouragement, and challenges from my mentors, this profession has generally been very friendly and focused on the betterment of local government and the future leaders for local government.
Last week, May 28th marked the one-year anniversary of the passing of the legendary Maya Angelou, an American author, poet, and actress. Ms. Angelou’s career spanned more than fifty years. She was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and spent time with national and world leaders.
In honor of her passing, I read some of her more famous quotes from various works and speeches. One stuck with me:
People will forget what you said,
People will forget what you did,
But people will never forget
How you made them feel.
As leaders, we often get caught up building a persona that we think leaders should possess or finding the words that we think leaders should use. At the end of the day, it is not about what you say or what you do; it is about how you make others feel.
So, take time to mentor the future generation of local government. Take time to get to know your employees. Take time to show that you care about your citizens. Take time.
When your career is completed, you will have developed future leaders, impacted your organization, and bettered your city.
Executive Search Manager
This week, we said good-bye to our friends at Parks and Recreation as the series finale aired. Parks and Recreation is a comedy television series centered in the parks department in Pawnee, Indiana. The series stars the amazingly talented Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, a manager in the Parks and Recreation department, who tackles every local government task with an unending amount of enthusiasm and optimism towards public service and each and every governmental task. She also has a dream of becoming president of the United States – a potentially far-fetched dream, but I believe one that many of those who embark on a career in public service share with her.
After realizing local government was the subject for a prime time sitcom, I was immediately drawn to the show during the first season. The episodes tracked major local government issues such as government shut-downs and recalls, as well as reoccurring processes such as budgeting, elections, and town hall meetings. The comedy also showed the passion that can be demonstrated by citizens on local issues.
While I was an avid fan for the majority of its seven year run, the show recently lost its spot in my DVR. I actually read about the series finale on NPR’s website and a quote from the show caught my attention:
There’s a scene in a very early episode in which city planner Mark Brendanawicz — who later left the show — explains with some misery that his latest accomplishment is getting a speed bump lowered 2 inches. Leslie, as always, had the bright side covered: “You fixed a problem,” she says. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
And, that is exactly what the characters in the show did every week…they fixed a problem – though, often, it was an outlandish problem that was fixed in a very funny way.
While I enjoyed the humor of the show, local governments across the world fix problems every day. That is what we are supposed to do. Every day, local government officials from the laborers to department directors, and everyone in between, fix problems to make life better for the citizens.
As I watched the series finale this evening (after Googling the “Cliffs Notes” version for the past several seasons), Leslie Knope’s character sums up public service in a toast to her former Parks and Recreation teammates, “When we worked here, together, we fought, scratched, and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public services is all about – small incremental change every day.” In Jim Collins work in Good to Great, Leslie’s quote represents the concept of “Turning the Flywheel.” Small, consistent steps taken towards improvement will yield dramatic improvements over time (Tweet This).
When you are frustrated by the fighting, clawing, or the tiny tasks – read this quote to remind you that your daily changes will make people’s lives better. Making a difference is all that all of us public servants want (besides being president).
PS – While planning your community’s Easter Egg Hunt, watch this clip from Parks and Recreation. You can thank me later.
Executive Search Manager
During Sunday’s Austin Marathon, a participant dramatically crawled to the finish line to complete her race.
Hyvon Ngetich, a 29 year-old runner from Kenya, led the women’s elite race for the majority of the 26.2 mile race. However, with the finish line in sight, she collapsed. Her body literally hit a wall and she was unable to continue to run.
She was offered a wheelchair and declined. She was offered medical assistance and declined. In a marathon, if you are assisted at all, then you would be disqualified. Instead, Ms. Ngetich crawled on her hands and knees to the finish line.
As you can see from this video, she shows fierce determination with every movement of her body as she slowly gets closer and closer to the finish. With an outstanding amount of effort, Ms. Ngetich finished third in the women’s marathon – a focused and determined runner.
It is during the trying times in our communities that leaders also show this unending focus and determination. An issue, such as a major development project or the annual budget approval, can bring unexpected obstacles at the end of a long review process. It does not matter how many times a leader has checked in with the community or the elected officials along the way; an obstacle at the end can completely derail the entire process.
But, when an obstacle presents itself, do not give up on crossing the finish line (Tweet This). You just may need to adjust your method of reaching the finish line. Perhaps, you need to explore some public engagement opportunities to reach to the crux of the conflict. Perhaps, you need to ask that the issue be sent to an advisory committee for further review by different perspectives from the community. Or, perhaps, the issue should be tabled until a different time in the life of the city.
For whatever issue is presenting an obstacle in your community, focus your attention on the finish line and how you can get there. Then, with unending determination, crawl your community to the finish. As a leader, it does not matter that you finished first or third, it matters that you finished – with focus and determination.
Executive Search Manager