We just had a general municipal election in British Columbia and from my perspective there was something very positive about it: we had a higher number of candidates and a higher voter turnout. This means that interest in what local governments do and how they do it has increased. I am very pleased about this, because one of the biggest issues we face at the local level is apathy for government. I love my job and I have passion for what I do and the community I serve and live in. In addition, as a local government administrator I deal with a very complex field and a wide variety of issues: from road construction and maintenance, to parks amenities and recreation centres; from water quality and conservation, to saving lives and properties; and the list goes on. In addition, as the Chief Administrative Officer of a municipal corporation I have the blessing (or for some the curse) of two main responsibilities: first to advise Council to the best of my ability on the options they have in order to make an informed decision; and second, to carry out those decisions with the assistance of staff. I know and I feel this to be a huge responsibility but it takes an entire organization to do that and I am ever grateful to the members of my staff.
In my life experience, I have worked in many jobs. I marketed computers, I reported for newspapers, I served in the military, I practised law, I consulted private corporations on management and business plans, I taught, and finally I worked (and work) in local government. I believe that my variety of experiences has provided me with good common sense and decent business practices. I have to say that, in all honesty, working for local government is not for the faint of heart. You have to keep motivated all the time and you have to fight constant misinformation on what staff do and how we are organized and operate. Notwithstanding all that, my job is a constant inspiration to me and to the majority of our staff. I remember a few years ago I hired a new Director of Finance for a municipality from the private sector. She had never worked in local government but she was the best fit for the job and I was right. She did a wonderful job and she earned the respect of many colleagues who have never worked in the private sector. She used to tell me that she had never been so busy in her entire career. Indeed her job with that municipality was very demanding on her. Just a couple of years ago she left that local government and is now working for a progressive, rapid growing private company expanding its business throughout BC and Alberta. In fact, she has become a partner in the company. One day we were having a conversation about differences in work environments and she said to me: “I never thought working in local government would be so hard, busy and demanding. Compared to the work I did in private corporations, some of them very big, local government is the most challenging and demanding.” I believe so too.
Communities from all over the world are facing and will face hard times and as individuals, families and community members will have to meet new and old challenges, especially doing more for less. Many times I wrote and said that we are or can be leaders within our circle of influence. This is the time to draw upon our inner strengths and abilities, which I know we all have, to face these hard times with a renewed commitment. So, in thinking of these challenges, may I suggest that it is our responsibility, collectively, individually and in all of our respective roles to do the following:
- Be informed. Get to know your local government by approaching staff and asking questions on how things work and what we do. Try to understand the demands of your community and how we are trying to meet them. Finally, approach your elected officials and ask them good questions about the goals and objectives of your municipality.
- Be connected. In a society where social networks are the norm of communication now, your community probably has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and other social media accounts. Subscribe and keep informed on what’s happening in your community. Visit the community and local government website. You will find useful stuff that will help you explore our community in more depth.
- Be part of the solution, not the problem. Your feedback is important to your community leaders and they understand that sometimes you can be frustrated by the bureaucracy imposed by the many laws that regulate us. Sometimes even staff scratch their heads at some of the legislation they have to deal with. In British Columbia, for instance, the reality is that local governments have a very limited autonomy and it all comes from the provincial government. The provincial government pretty much decides what we do and how we do it. In addition, they are downloading more and more responsibilities to local governments without giving them the resources to do it. It is as frustrating for us as it is for you.
- Be positive. Recently, I received an e-mail from one of my staff who also has had a long experience in the private sector. In a nutshell, he was concerned at the tone of some election campaigning, not just in Lake Country but everywhere else in BC. He commented: “… I’ve been thinking a bit about working in local government lately, with the election coming and some candidates, journalists, and forum respondents passing various types of comments about municipal staff being lazy, incompetent, etc. While I know it is a common misconception for people to think that public servants are lazy, incompetent, etc. due to the bureaucracy, it concerns me how advocating and voicing these misconceptions can affect the entire organization [and the community] in the long term… I don’t believe they consider how attacking the reputation of the municipality has many unintended impacts. .. I’m sure these claims do not help how employees see themselves. Worse yet, they will no doubt affect our ability to attract the bright talent that we need to develop and improve as an organization, or to retain the talent that we have already. I believe that while we do have areas to improve upon as an organization, we have taken many steps lately to get better and we have many highly qualified and talented professionals working [in local government]. As someone who has worked in the private sector and in various municipalities, and is committed to working in the local government field, I find it troubling that public service … seems to be valued less [than other services].”
Many people are willing to help and are committed to provide the best service to the public and the community. I know that there is always room for improvement and in my sphere of influence I am working hard on making those improvements happen. The majority of local government staff are local taxpayers and care for the community as they care for their family’s and individual quality of life. Also those who don’t live in our community are caring individuals that take pride in what they do. Give us the benefit of the doubt. There is much more to local government operations than meets the eye.