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Smart and smarter

Smart and smarter - Local Government Magazine February 2017

How to handle local government’s anti-logic paradox.

I recently overheard a senior local government manager say: “If we can’t convince them with logic, we’ll get them with the legislation.” In other words, we will eventually bully them into making the ‘right’ decision. This led me to consider how opinions, myths (some would call them untruths), conspiracies and emotional narratives (the vibe) are currently trumping straightforward, logical and fact-based discourse.
Recent international events have created a higher profile for this phenomenon. But, to some extent, the idea that logic alone does not necessarily triumph over the democratic process has always played a part in council decision-making. This is not a bad thing. It just is what it is.
However, this propensity for elected members to sometimes make decisions based on a popular or particular vibe frustrates the hell out of those who can clearly see a more rational and logical solution. This applies equally to certain sectors of the community as it does to some local government staff.
Local government employs some of the smartest people I know (not smart alecs but smart people) who are incredibly knowledgeable in their area of expertise, passionate about their job and totally dedicated to the view that there is a right and efficient way to achieve the task at hand.
They are also people who totally thrive on the linear thinking, systems and legislation that underpin their complex organisation and its business.
Not surprisingly these same smart people may not equally embrace and / or respect the other side of the business and consider elected representatives to be a handbrake on the logical and rational way to do business.
At the end of 2016 I was privileged to work with a wide range of councils and elected representatives through their induction programmes.
During these sessions the participants were invited to say what things staff can do better to support them to make the best possible decisions. The following is a summary of their answers.
Give me the chance to be heard
Consistently – and without fail – elected members wanted the space to be heard. Not in a grandstanding way (although some do enjoy this) but in a way that enables them to express their views and the views of their constituents. While they realise that sometimes these views are unformed, and do not fit the current plans or strategies (or procedures), they very much want the opportunity to share them.
Help me to do the best job I can
Mayors and councillors (noting that many elected representatives are also very smart people) are likely to be successful in their other life, will be thoroughly engaged with a range of specific sectors / stakeholders and / or issues, and will be well aware of the limitations the community might see regarding even the most excellent proposals and plans.
They want management to support their varying levels of ability, to better enable them to positively ‘sell’ what the council does, and to provide them with the tools to develop competence and understanding so they can do their job well.
Bring us the views of the community
Elected members appreciate they are only there thanks to the few eligible voters who bothered. They get this and are passionate about wanting this to be different. So they expressed, with many innovative ideas, the strong desire to find ways that will capture community views to better inform their decision-making (albeit sometimes wanting this engagement to enable a specific view to get the traction that they firmly believe it warrants).
These three things seemed like very smart ideas to me. And not one of them was about bringing more evidence and logic to the debate. Instead they focused on wanting to be engaged with, and informed about community views and perspectives – to enhance, not detract from, the intelligence provided by staff.
Managers like the one quoted above sometimes believe that elected members are a barrier to good decision-making (or, at the very least, to efficient decision-making).
However, I would say the messy democratic process of bringing challenging questions, opposing information and public sentiment, matters to decision-making too.
Sometimes this is just being smart in a different kind of way.

This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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