By Mark Funkhouser
As a longtime auditor and then a big-city mayor, I’ve been called a lot of things, but being a Pollyanna is not one of them. If anything, my peers have said I have a tendency to be too blunt when delivering unpleasant news, while my critics have accused me of stoking negativity.
Leaders today face multiple challenges that threaten their effectiveness: political polarization, gun violence, a racial wealth gap, a global pandemic and the economic uncertainty that has followed, to name a few. Yet as we head into another year of unknowns, I am actually hopeful about where our local governments are headed.
I spend a lot of time talking with local officials, and from them I hear stories of perseverance, care and trust that almost never make the headlines. And why would they? We all — not just the media — tend to focus on and remember the negative. It’s human nature: instincts that have kept us and our ancestors alive for hundreds of thousands of years by recognizing and avoiding danger. It takes more effort to recognize and hold on to the positive lessons in life but, ultimately, these lessons are what shape us.
So in the spirit of passing on and celebrating what works, here are five reasons that I am optimistic about local government this year.
A White House that believes in — and knows — local government. From the beginning of his administration, President Biden (whose own political career began in local government) has signaled his support for local leaders by engaging directly with them and directing significant pandemic relief funding straight to localities. Biden and most of his cabinet have made it a point to participate in the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors January meeting each year of his presidency, including hosting mayors at the White House. “I ran for the U.S. Senate because serving as a local official was too hard,” Biden joked in his address to the mayors earlier this month. ”They know where you live. They knock on your door. And I’ve always had enormous respect for the job you do.”
And as the pandemic wreaked havoc on local government services such as health care, education and transportation, Biden installed former mayors in high-profile positions. From Pete Buttigieg to Mitch Landrieu to Marty Walsh to Keisha Lance Bottoms, these chief executives are tasked with overseeing billions of dollars in funding and executing new federal programs for state and localities. I’ve always advocated that cities in crisis need more room to maneuver, not less, and currently those handling the purse in Washington, D.C., seem to agree.
A growing awareness of the importance of listening to each other to build a collective community vision. I often tell my university students that politics is the process by which we contend with each other to determine what values we will make real. Money — and therefore budgeting — is an inherent part of that process. How we divide up our limited resources signals what we value.
For a long time, those values have been determined by city staffers and elected officials who then went and asked for approval or verification of those values. But that’s changing. More and more, I’m seeing local leaders engage with their residents in a meaningful way to determine those values and spending priorities. Our work in South Bend, Indiana, for example, has included more than 100 meetings with residents, city staffers, elected officials and other stakeholders to build the framework for a comprehensive plan for the city that is fiscally sustainable and reflects the community’s collective vision.
We’ve also worked with ResourceX, a technology company focused on priority-based budgeting, to hold convenings for local finance officials to talk about using data to identify a community’s priorities, determine the desired outcomes and then focus money in that direction. It’s a message that has resonated with folks across the country.
This shift is also reflected in the Government Finance Officers Association’s Rethinking Budgeting initiative. GFOA’s research on strategic planning calls into question fundamental underlying assumptions and proposes a new approach that is better suited to meet the challenges governments face today.
It’s this attitude of willingness and innovation, of being willing to discard what you think you know in favor of building relationships, inclusivity and engagement, that has me hopeful for what’s to come.
A new focus on quality of life rather than tax giveaways as a driver of economic prosperity. In what I see as a spinoff to this shift in community engagement, local officials are also starting to prioritize residents over corporations as an economic development strategy. There’s been a slow but steady shift away from the old model that focused on creating jobs through the ineffective use of tax incentives and abatements, which too often contribute to systemic racism, and toward a strategy focused on creating prosperity by focusing on residents’ quality of life.
In fact, research shows that improving quality of life is the most sustainable path to community prosperity. The economist Michael Hicks, one of the authors of that research, was a guest speaker for us during the six-week cohort we developed for Engaging Local Government Leaders with the support of AARP Livable Communities. He pointed out that good schools, low crime, reduced blight and better recreational opportunities were the top drivers for economic and job growth.
Rather than tax breaks — or even tax rates — driving decision-making, it’s the amenities those taxes pay for, said Hicks. “I’ve been an economist for over 25 years now and … this is the most interesting and evocative finding of my career,” he told us.
Civic tech that’s built for local government. During the pandemic, governments were motivated more than ever to modernize their IT systems, and that process also raised new awareness of the critical role digital tools can play in translating policy goals into positive impact. The civic tech industry, which was growing before the pandemic, has stepped up to respond. Unlike larger tech solutions designed for the corporate world and then adapted — often clumsily — for the public sector, this industry is actively working to understand the unique challenges faced by local governments and designing purpose-built solutions.
While technology is not a silver bullet, these solutions are making a tangible difference in streamlining operations, freeing up staff time to focus on high-value work, and supporting positive interaction between governments and their constituents. We heard examples of this time and time again while writing a playbook we produced in partnership with GTY technology last year. For instance:
– When pandemic recovery funds started flowing from Washington, with much of it filtered through state governments on its way to localities, Arizona’s digital grants management system prepared it not only to track that funding but to comply with the increased reporting requirements around performance.
– Barnstable County, Massachusetts, lowered costs and increased vendor competition with a new digital procurement system.
– Miami’s online business licensing platform streamlined work for city employees while helping Mayor Francis Suarez achieve his goal of making it easier for an entrepreneur to open a business through the convenience of a mobile phone.
These are just a few of the many examples I hear about on a regular basis. While much will hinge on state and local governments’ ability to build on the technical and policy lessons learned during the pandemic, I’m confident the recent progress is just the start of more accessible, human-centered local government.
A tireless and inspiring public workforce. None of the above would be possible without people who care about making their communities better. The conversations I have with the growing cadre of energetic and diverse women and men who are bringing their passion and talent to elected and professional positions in local government impresses me on a daily basis. What’s more, their enthusiasm for their work comes at a time when local governments are facing a hiring crisis and just about everyone left is in danger of burnout.
We need to support these noble people not just by hiring more workers but by investing in the ones who are already on the job. I’ve long held that leading a team of people effectively means doing so with compassion and understanding. People have to know you care about them and believe in the collective mission. In the many years I was a government auditor, I made it a point to have regular conversations with staff to ask how they were doing, how they thought the organization was doing, and what I should be paying attention to.
My hope for the inspiring people I have the privilege to meet with is that the spark they provide their communities is fueled by a positive work environment attuned to their needs. Local government may be about providing services, but everything centers on community. And to strengthen our communities, we need to take care of each other.