Governing for an Uncertain Future

August 23, 2016 – Mike McCann


August 23, 2016

I recently presented to the Bay Area Chapter of the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers (CSMFO) on Governing for an Uncertain Future: Resiliency in Turbulent Times. We surveyed ways modern technology helps governments meet some of their most pressing challenges. More than ever, we need to protect our infrastructure, strengthen the workforce, create broad strategic alignment, and prepare for tomorrow.

1. Infrastructure investment is one of the League of California Cities’ top priorities, according to San Francisco’s Treasurer Jose Cisneros:

“Numerous studies suggest that not only is our infrastructure unprepared for growth, it isn’t in condition to adequately support even the current population. The infrastructure situation at the local level is bleak. Approximately 83 percent of Californians live, work and play in cities.”

It’s tough to reserve funds for future needs when today’s problems are so pressing. And it certainly isn’t easy to ask the electeds to set aside funds from current activities to replace or repair aging infrastructure, especially when infrastructure still works and may continue to perform beyond the electeds’ term.

Charlie Francis, a Subject Matter Expert at OpenGov, has written an Administrator’s Brief on Capital Improvement Planning and a Finance Officer’s Desk series on Capital Improvement Planning that provides considerable insight into this complicated subject.

Expensive, long-term issues like infrastructure are easier to manage when the government establishes a track record of open-handed and honest dialog, clear and accurate information, and proactive engagement. This gives local leaders a platform to work from when difficult decisions are needed. While the choices may still be as hard as ever, working from a basis of mutual trust and respect allows a more productive conversation and sets the stage for workable compromises.

When times are good, no one wants to think about bad times or put aside funds for a rainy day. Having a long-term perspective backed up by long-term history displayed meaningfully on the big screen can go a long way to advance the conversation.

2. Our changing workforce

37% of local government employees are over 50 years old and eligible for retirement soon; while just 12% are under 30 years old. You can read more about our thoughts and recommendations in the Administrator’s Primer on Enabling Millennials in Government.

“I’ll eat at least 30 slices of cake over the next five years” Andrew McCreery, Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania’s Finance Director says, “That’s one for every retirement party Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania’s municipal office will hold as about a quarter of our staff retires.”

He then describes three lessons he’s learned as a millennial finance director:

  • Millennials value data sharing.
  • They prefer speed and efficiency.
  • They’re working toward the same goals as other generations; they’re in government for the same reason other generations are: to serve citizens.

Modern technology helps governments meet these objectives by breaking down information silos between systems and departments. Better access to data and insights within the data enhances speed and fosters collaboration.

Julie Thuy Underwood asks some important questions we need to answer when recruiting millennials in Why Your Government Needs to Be a Hipster Organization. My own children could have been her models, and their job searches reflect the questions she asks:

  1. Does your organization place a high value on communicating a vision, goals, challenges and the big picture?
  2. Do employees have opportunities to learn new skills, gain valuable experience and possibly advance in their careers?
  3. Do employees have a say in their work environment or workplace conditions that affect them?
  4. Do you offer flexible work schedules?
  5. Are employees able to access workplace email, servers or key applications using their personal mobile devices?
  6. Does your organization have a diverse workforce?
  7. Do your managers provide ongoing feedback and input to employees?

We depend on strong resilient workforces that thrive in good times and bad. Tsunamis, tornadoes, and hurricanes demonstrate the vulnerability of modern infrastructures to nature. Wall Street’s meltdown and the subsequent recession remind us human-made disasters can also be devastating.

Groups, organizations, and even communities can develop a “culture of resilience:” the ability to rebound from the untoward effects of adversity – whether natural or man-made. Researchers have studied human resilience in individuals ranging from accountants to law enforcement personnel.

They found organizational resilience largely depends upon leadership. Key leadership personnel, often frontline leadership, appear to have the ability to “tip” an organization in the direction of resilience by demonstrating four core attributes:optimism, decisiveness, integrity, and open communications

Simply said, when a small number of high credibility individuals demonstrate, or “model” the behaviors associated with resilience, they have the ability to change the entire culture according to George S. Everly in Building a Resilient Organizational Culture from the Harvard Business Review.

3. Strategic alignment: Transparency and consensus

Government operates in a fishbowl. Being a leader is like sitting on the dunking stool at the county fair – every day.  You just have to keep drying yourself off and getting back up on the dias. The issues are daunting:

  • Interest groups can turn out at the drop of the virtual hat over the Internet to defend the library, park, sports program, or favorite annual event.
  • Labor unions take hits in the lean times and expect to share in the good times.
  • Media publish narratives with varying degrees of relationship to reality.
  • People cling to slivers of information and build their own truth.
  • Governments have mixed success sharing financial and performance facts with their staff.
  • Strategic planning is difficult and implementing decisions even harder.
  • Polls show 72% of Americans still have trust in local government, but it is less clear how to convert that trust to action.

Transparency websites are now a normal part of good governance, and the latest technology pushes them far beyond online PDF’s. The public and staff alike learn by exploring interactive reports and digging into the details that interest them. Citizens that see data expand in front of them gain new learning pathways that citizens to their governments in ways unknown before.

Sharing the facts effectively encourages better discourse, both in public forums and around the water cooler. It is much easier to find alignment when everyone shares the same set of facts, and can explore the alternatives for themselves.

Conclusion

In each of these four areas, powerful technology can help governments fulfill their obligations to citizens. GovTech companies such as OpenGov are using powerful data science and engineering teams to build solutions that bring governments closer to data-driven governance.

Governments that deploy better technology today will increase the odds of resiliently navigating whatever tough times the future may hold. Through better reporting, better transparency, and better collaboration during the budget process, governments can use data to inform their toughest decisions and win buy-in for necessary policies.


Mike McCann moved into government service in Ukiah, then Monterey CA, after beginning his career in corporate (ADP, Wells Fargo Bank, Blue Shield of CA), not-for-profit (Blue Shield of Ca, Mendocino Private Industry Council), and start-up accounting. For the last 20 years, Mike has been hands-on with budget, financial reporting and accounting operations, including City budgets and CAFRs. He holds a B.S.  in Accounting from SJSU and M.S. in Instructional Technology from  CSUMB.

Contact Mike with questions or comments at mmccann@opengov.com.

Category: Government Finance