The Season for Reflection and Gratitude
December 22, 2015
Everyone who has helped lead a local government knows there is much to be thankful for in the holiday season. Like anyone coming into government, I had many lessons to learn, and I am thankful the hard-working people I met were eager to teach. I was surprised at the breadth of skills and knowledge needed to staff a local government. I learned that City Hall was not a staid office building full of people working on regulations, reports, and plans.
Instead, I found a dynamic, active headquarters for men and women working on the streets (and under them), in parks and other facilities all over the city, often in the public eye. They used every discipline, craft, and trade imaginable. Painting buildings, trimming trees, directing traffic, binding books, teaching kids, fixing sewers, inspecting fire extinguishers, and cleaning restrooms. They took pride in providing services to residents and maintaining the civic center of our complex civilization.
Earlier in my private business career, I had learned to produce return-on-investment for shareholders. By deploying their capital with a single minded focus, we strove to maximize business volume and build profits. I quickly found that “doing business” in government is different.
I entered government service with a mental model of citizens as shareholders, and the Council as their Board of Directors. Of course, that analogy broke down as soon as I began working on planning with departments across the city. The objectives government staff pursue have little to do with profits. but everything to do with life. The quality and variety of people drawn to government service is fascinating, and I learned lessons every day from good folk in many fields.
The brilliant Library Department Assistant Manager with the intense smile who must balance his budget down to the last dollar, to be able to give his independent Library Board, staff, and the City Council a complete concrete plan for the next year. He does not care how many hours it takes, how many late nights, how many revisions he writes until he has it right. Whether he is pushing to expand services, or fighting to preserve them in the face of declining resources, the quality of his analysis and preparation does not change.
The young, energetic Recreation Department Manager whose first job was a youth leader in the same department. He went away to college, and came back to lead the entire program. He exercises infinite patience in meeting with every public interest and community group imaginable. Then, when the meetings end, he reflects, researches, and balances programs to stretch limited resources across many needs.
The veteran policewoman who gave me a different understanding of the risks officers face in the street every day. Wrestling a drug-influenced suspect one time is hard. She asked me to imagine doing that day after day for a career.
The barrel-chested fire captain who explained that he, and any of his people, would run into a burning building to rescue me. It’s a job requirement. The constant training, expensive equipment, and esprit de corp take on a different meaning when you stop to think about that job definition.
I am grateful both to have known these people and many others, and for the work they do for all of us every day. Of course, they earn a solid living, and have their own career, professional, and personal interests, as they should. But every single person I met in my years in government had a sense of service in what they did. They displayed concern beyond their self-interest.
I am grateful for the citizens who step forward at all levels, who run for City Council, who accept appointments to Planning Commissions, Neighborhood, Library and Safety Committees. Local government is retail politics and direct democracy. Where else can anyone step up to the microphone and say their piece to their elected representatives?
I have a special gratitude and appreciation for the leaders in the hot seat. Back in business school, I learned the term span of control, which refers to the number of functions or people an organization or person is responsible for. Most businesses work in a few specific areas, and their leaders have to be knowledgeable in subjects relevant to that work.
Contrast that with government, where a leader’s span of control is immense. The City Manager is expected to exercise prudent judgment by taking legal and fiduciary responsibility for decisions affecting every aspect of civic life. The Manager, with an executive team of assistants and department heads, steers an enterprise as multi-faceted and demanding as any similar-sized corporation. She is the public face of the government, and gives the Council the backbone, history, and wisdom to succeed. I was blessed to work with two powerful, brilliant and impassioned City Managers in my government career.
To everyone working today in local government, and everyone who has done their time, my thanks. Please take a moment out, reflect on the good you have done, and the difference you have made. Happy holidays to all.
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.
Category: Performance Management