Changing the Conversation
A Panel Discussion about Creating a New Mind Set about Navigating Public Perceptions
I just read an article in ICMA’s Public Management journal (March 2013) and a particular quote caught my eye, “It’s a tricky time to be a leader (in local government).” Now that is an understatement. The reasons are many. A partial listing includes: a fishbowl existence that is the “new normal” called “transparency;” various public sector fiscal crises or hardships tied to the local economy, national economy, pension obligations, decaying infrastructure needs, structural deficits; the impact of technology on community engagement and community expectations about service delivery; a polarized political environment creating an incalculable number of workshops offered to public sector managers on how to manage unruly public meetings, when to intervene with bloggers, how to create “civility” principles for communities and elected officials to agree to; the impact of social media and traditional media, creating watchdog columns and tweeting exchanges specifically about local government decisions and public sector elected officials and staff.
“When the Internet publicity began, I remember being struck by how much the world was not the way we thought it was, that there was infinite variation in how people viewed the world.”
In the past two weeks alone, there has been a banner headline every other day questioning whether public sector leaders have acted properly around salaries, pension benefits, budget recommendations, citizen service delivery and rates, the making of public policy, ethical considerations regarding vendors, and the like.
This complex environment has been building and brewing for some time. Good systems thinkers see the linkage of these trends to the larger social, political, economical, environmental, philosophical, psychological changes occurring in U.S. cities, states, at the national level and between nations. A good systems thinker would also see the potential for a chronic negative, amplifying loop dynamic , i.e., a causal link between a set of variables where a change in x causes a change in y in a continuously, negative direction.
ICMA Executive Director, Bob O’Neill, argues this is the “decade of local government.” It sure doesn’t feel that way. Perhaps if we lead differently, think differently about our role in changing this dynamic, we might in fact have an opportunity to change the conversation and create a new, positive amplifying loop during this “decade of local government.”
This unusually complex context has had the following impact on public sector managers and leaders: some have stayed under the radar; some have minimized innovation and risk taking, to avoid the spotlight; some have tried not to make waves so much that they have gone against their own better judgment about good public policy; some have acted on the courage of their convictions about how they should operate and gotten creamed in the process; some have continued to manage and lead as they always have with a back -up plan for if they are questioned. In all cases, everyone is talking about who is next, where is the next critique going to come from and on what. Just yesterday I heard a high level public sector employee say, “When will it be our district that gets criticized by the media?” Her concern, of course, is the fallout from that inquiry/scrutiny. She worries about the inhibiting effect upon staff who internalize the critique made of them and it begins to impact their innovative spirit.
An upcoming Centre forum on May 21, 1:30-4:30pm called , “Changing the Conversation: A Panel Discussion on Creating a New Mind Set about Navigating Public Perceptions” is going to stimulate a dialogue about how to artfully , thoughtfully, and selectively raise up one’s head in this environment, frame issues successfully, make innovations and handle the corresponding scrutiny, and understand the depth and breadth of public perceptions in order to effectively respond to these perceptions. It would be arrogant to suggest public perceptions can be manipulated in any way. And it would be problematic to think there was nothing that could be done to begin to chip away at the dynamic of a negative, amplifying loop. There will be no recipe on this. It will be a new mindset that we are after. And, this is leadership.
“Without publicity there can be no public support, and without public support every nation must decay.”
We will bring together a thoughtful political consultant, influential and articulate public administrators, and enthusiastic and serious practitioners in local government public relations. These discussants promise to dialogue and debate, and agree to disagree about the depth and nature of public perceptions, the ways to address these perceptions and innovate in spite of them, the ways in which elected officials factor into this dynamic, and the ways out of what is problematic about this dynamic.