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It Takes a Village: Insights on Culture and Community in Local Government


In prior posts, we’ve looked at the many aspects of culture that affect large organizations, including the cultural dynamics in government that play out in large state & federal agencies.

A few days ago, a reader wrote and asked: “What about local government?”

That really started me thinking. So let’s have a look.

Similarities

Government agencies share a common service mandate, regardless of scale. That means local government exists to support its citizens, and that many aspects of the overall mission would logically be the same. Examples of this: revenue collection, protection services, health & welfare, even natural resources.

There’s also a similar political dynamic. Elected officials are voted into office to provide leadership and direction to full-time administrative branches. That can lead to a philosophical divide between the elected and the civil servants, an interesting cultural rift that is unique to governmental organizations, as I covered previously.

The net result is that local governments, like their larger state & federal counterparts, will encounter challenges of silo thinking and culture clashes, often resulting in small-scale bureaucracies.

Differences

It’s the differences that really bring home some interesting new factors. The most important of these is a sense of community. I wrote on virtual community a few months back, but the ‘brick and mortar’ community – including neighborhoods, businesses, recreation areas, and the like – makes up what is typically the strong, vibrant foundation or our day-to-day experience.

In a real way, our local communities serve as the backbone of our society.

These are critical factors for any town or region to remain healthy. Where these elements are absent, as is the case in regions with long-term economic decline, the systemic problems can be overwhelming. That means local communities and their governments are vitally important to create safe, healthy places for people to live and work.

Several things come with community that can benefit the cause of local government, with opportunities to drive a more open, participative culture

  • Citizen engagement – most want to live a good, healthy lifestyle, and want their neighborhoods safe, their schools effective, their tax dollars put to good use. This bodes well for engagement, because local citizens have an immediate stake in the affairs of local government
  • Proximity – by being nearby, it is far easier to participate in local government events and elections, including hearings, council meetings, and the like. Not so with state or federal.
  • Visible results – the effect of government can be seen locally, reinforcing value in real terms

I’ll argue that an “intellectual distance” has caused state and federal government to grow more removed from their constituents. It’s a chasm that hurts relevance to the average citizen. Small wonder the feds have long embraced a “town meeting” approach, in hopes of capturing the level of engagment that normally accrues locally.

The other major delta that impacts culture in local government derives from smaller scale, with 3 immediate impacts:

  • Less-hardened silos – the walls of over-specialization become stronger (quite literally, hardened) with time and scale. Yes, local governments will exhibit turf wars and silos among departments. But because they are typically smaller scale, it should, in theory at least, be easier to begin working across them.
  • Greater impact of individuals – with smaller jurisdictions in particular (towns, small cities) it is possible for strong leaders to drive signifcant changes; this is more difficult with large-scale entrenched bureaucracy.
  • Low critical mass (smaller talent pool). Being ‘smaller’ means there is generally less expertise available locally; smaller jurisdictions may need to lean more on outside help.

What does this mean? For starters: state and federal governments should ‘think small’.

But it also means this:

Local government should be aggressive on capitalizing on the advantages that community and smaller scale afford. They enjoy unique levels of access to their constituents. Moreover, they are closer to organizational models that favor collaboration .. provided they can abandon the silos that are inherited via the notion of government as ‘bureaucracy’.

A strong message from our culture research still applies here: there are no silver bullets. Achieving change of any scale is hard, and culture is as strong a factor in local government as with the larger jurisdictions. Government must be willing to interact directly with their citizens, not hide behind the silo’d walls of bureaucracy. Being both small and local can encourage engagement, a fundamental enabler of social change.

Is it time for the resurgence of the local community? Maybe it takes a village, after all.

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3 thoughts on “It Takes a Village: Insights on Culture and Community in Local Government

  1. Thoughtful post, thank you. The cyclical nature of these trends demonstrates the foolishness of the extreme swings that have been taken and continue in proposals. Your Delta description sounds like a diagnostic breakdown of an aging man hardening of the arteries, seizures causing his faculties to go rogue, and a low blood count unable to deliver the necessary nutrients. Is our government an old man? Maybe. Probably.

    Localization is key and I think that you’ve hit on it. With the differences that cultures possess, it is impossible to develop overly-centralized governance that is capable of maintaining quality and respecting individuality. It is time to stop running everything like a business.

    Thanks,
    @DrTimony

  2. Pingback: Gov 2.0 Radio Hot Links – September 11, 2010 « Adriel Hampton: Wired to Share

  3. Pingback: Gov 2.0 Radio Hot Links – September 11, 2010 | Gov 2.0 Radio

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