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COVID-19: Where the rubber meets the road

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Governance, Planning

Local level takeaways and lessons learned

The pandemic has placed many pressures on public officials to change the way they do things. Everything from navigating shrinking revenue streams to purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) is being examined. The most significant pressure may be around the shift of having staff work from home – often without the proper resources or expertise.

Many local governments have shared these obstacles. Elizabeth Keller has also seen solutions that worked across many communities as well. Keller is director of public policy at ICMA. She recently shared some of these common practices with delegates at the Alliance for Innovation’s Govapalooza local government conference.

“What I love about local government is this is where the rubber meets the road and we jump, and we do all kinds of creative things when we’re pressed,” Keller said. “So how do we deal with this at the local level? Well, we’re always looking for all our tools and our history to help guide us.

Common Problems – and Their Solutions

Keller said there are many common problems faced by local governments across North America. For example, municipal governments often didn’t have the necessary authorization needed to respond quickly to various pandemic impacts. To fix this problem, many communities found ways for staff to act without a formal council vote.

This type of creativity is also reflected in what Keller calls “scheduling creativity.” This can mean adjusting shift lengths to protect critical workers. It can also mean allowing greater flexibility on how and where people are working. Many communities are finding different ways to use their staff. Say, for example, a municipality closed its libraries or a community centre. They could redeploy many of those staff to do handle different tasks. This redeployment could allow them to deliver cloth masks to residents, as an example. In reality, they could provide all kinds of help to people who needed it most.

Bulk purchasing of PPE is another thing Keller said local governments shifted toward. Through necessity they also shifted to doing a better job managing their inventory. This was essential for knowing exactly what they had and what they needed.

Clarity is Key for City Leadership

Keller said ICMA members have talked a lot about how they need to trust in their working capital.

“I’m really fond of the saying by our good friend Mark Twain, who said, ‘Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening, when you would rather have talked.’ I know that’s true for all this,” Keller said. “So how we listen, and the way we listen, and showing sensitivity to the needs of the community, our staff, into each other is really so important.”

It can be difficult, Keller said, not to take criticism personally. But, it is important staff build strong relationships with their elected leadership. They need to ensure elected officials they can be counted on to carry out their policy direction. This may be true even if staff have personal opinions on that given direction. But also important is to remind those same elected officials they must strive to set clear policy directions. Clarity is key so the city leadership can put that direction in place.

Emerging Best Practices for Community Engagement

What best practices are emerging to reach and engage with community residents who may not have internet or virtual access? Local governments have become reliant on the virtual world during the pandemic. But Keller said they’ve also continued having smaller, in-person meetings as well.

One of the most valuable lessons learned is the way local governments have communicated and engaged during this pandemic. Keller said there has been a real focus on priorities. Governments have worked hard to make sure everyone understood the challenges that were being faced. And, as much as possible in this crisis, staff committed to gathering community input on possible solutions.

This has been helpful in engaging the community. One thing Keller said many civic officials are discussing is a networked approach to engaging residents. This involves working with different organizations that have the ability to talk to people where they are. It is important, Keller explained, that staff recognize they can’t do it all. Public officials must connect a network of residents who have “tentacles in the community.” This network must commit to feeding back to local governments about the pressures facing the community.

Lessons Learned … So Far

So what have we learned? What are those leadership lessons and strategies that we can take with us?

Keller said she believes there are more lessons than many local governments realize. Also, everyone will have to work on understanding all the things they have been absorbing.

“This is a marathon; it’s not over. As our resident expert, Anthony Fauci, tells us, now is not the time to let down our guard,” Keller said. “Nonetheless, we know that this period of time is both daunting and in a way it’s also energizing. So keep passing the baton, take care of yourselves and your team, and carpe diem.”  MW

✯ Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Dr. Dianne Saxe’s article: When disasters take hold. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.

Sean Meyer is Senior Content Editor for Municipal World.

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