Improving Local Government Decision Making: Insights from Local Government Officials
Ohren, Joe, Public Management
Most people view local government as the level of government most likely to directly impact their daily lives. While budget and policy decisions at the national level garner most of the media attention, it is the operations of local governments that affect us day in and day out. Are the roads plowed, are the streets safe, is the garbage picked up, does the water come out of the tap, does the fire department respond in an emergency? These are the services often taken for granted but critical to the quality of our lives.
Although professionals deliver services, elected or appointed officials on city councils or on boards make the budget and policy decisions. How effective are these governing bodies? What gets in the way of effective decision making? What are the barriers officials face as they make collective decisions, and how should the barriers be addressed?
During the past decade, I have worked with dozens of local governing bodies across Michigan in workshops designed to improve local government decision making. Often the workshops are motivated by changes in the makeup of councils or boards, significant challenges (financial or development issues, for example) facing the community, or severe conflicts between and among board members that get in the way of effective decisions.
This article describes the insights of hundreds of local government officials expressed during these workshops, as they have discussed collective decision-making problems and identified what they perceived as the most effective approaches to improving decision making.
The approach is straightforward. My role as facilitator is to structure a process that allows participants, often including elected officials as well as key administrators such as the manager, clerk, and attorney, to identify and discuss what are perceived as barriers to effective collective decision making. When a set of priority problems is determined, strategies and approaches are developed for overcoming the most important problems.
The facilitator often calls on the experiences of other communities to identity opportunities, but the facilitator's job is not to tell local officials what their problems are or how to solve them. That is their job. Once officials have gone through the problem-solving process, they are more likely to embrace the changes they have identified.
In Michigan, as in most states, such work sessions are public meetings and hence must be posted and open to the public. To overcome the chilling effect of the open meetings requirements--it is often difficult to air dirty laundry in public--the workshop process briefly surveys officials in advance of the first session to get things out in the open. Participants are asked to respond anonymously and confidentially to three questions from the facilitator:
(1.) Based on your experience with this and other decision-making bodies, identify three characteristics of good or "effective" decision-making groups. You can probably think of more than three, but what three do you think are most important?
(2.) Identify three barriers that you perceive are getting in the way of effective working relationships and decision making here in (community name). Again, limit your response to the three most important barriers.
(3.) Identify three strategies for improving our effectiveness as a governing body and a leadership team. Pick three that you would recommend be implemented in the coming weeks.
Individual responses are transcribed and assembled into worksheets that form the basis of the agenda for what usually becomes two separate work sessions: the first addresses responses to questions 1 and 2, and the second focuses on strategies for overcoming the barriers deemed most important by those who participated in the first session. When responses are on paper--in the worksheets--participants are much more likely to discuss them, even in the presence of reporters and members of the public. …