By David Unmacht
Each fall, the League actively engages with members at our Regional Meetings. This year, we’ve had sessions in Fergus Falls, St. Cloud, Mountain Iron, Baxter, Bemidji, Marshall, Mankato, and Rochester. As this magazine goes to press, we are gearing up for our metro-area meeting in Golden Valley.
In addition to our host cities, we visit countless other cities along the way. As our staff members travel the state, we take great pleasure in stopping at city halls to say hello, introduce ourselves, make new friends, and see what’s happening in their world.
The surprised smiles and greetings we receive are welcoming, and we are grateful to the city staff for taking time out of their busy day to spend a few minutes with us. When we ask about their latest contact with the League, we hear a range of responses, including appreciation for our staff’s detailed attention to insurance claims, help with research support, and guidance with human resources.
These trips provide League staff an opportunity to witness firsthand the work of our city officials and to reflect on the dynamic work city staff perform as stewards of the public trust.
A year ago, I wrote a column titled, “Five Qualities of a Premier City.” The qualities were derived from a collection of experiences accumulated over many years of working in local government. In July, I wrote a related column on “Qualities of an Effective Governing Body.” The response to the two columns was strong, hence—inspired by what we’ve witnessed during our fall city visits—it is appropriate that I complete this trilogy with thoughts on qualities that define successful staff work.
Like the previous two columns, these principles come from my work as a city and county administrator, conversations with colleagues, and witnessing the best in the business perform their jobs. The qualities outlined below are not captured from a book, nor are they rocket science. But we know the level of trust and respect between elected city officials and staff—and how these values are exhibited— are leading indicators of individual, organizational, and community success.
While this article is not comprehensive, here are five of what I consider the most important characteristics that define top-notch staff work.
Clear roles and expectations are essential to a functional city hall. The roles within city hall vary regardless of whether you are a police officer, plow driver, finance clerk, parks employee, or the city administrator. It is important to understand city government is inherently political. The mayor and council are elected and serve to set policy and to do the political work. City staff are appointed to inform policy discussions and implement decisions.
One of my fondest memories in working with a particularly difficult elected official was that he respected me and my team because, as he said it, “I can count on you to deliver bad news and admit your mistakes. This is important in building trust.”
As we all know, stuff happens, and being upfront, honest, and truthful is always the best course of action. We all know trust is fragile, hard to earn, and easy to lose. It’s important to never forget that.
A common denominator of dysfunction in a staff/elected relationship is the lack of communication. This leads to potential misunderstandings and mistrust. It is important for staff to take the initiative to understand their elected official’s expectations about sharing information. Today communication tools and platforms are abundant, so there should be no excuses.
Staff must live by a common public administration principle called the “No Surprises” rule: Make sure you communicate first, so your elected officials are never surprised by information or news happening in your city.
This is not always easy, especially when making recommendations or decisions. To the best of my ability, I treated every elected official equitably. Not equally, because I adjusted to accommodate styles, expectations, and level of interest. The principle is simple: If one elected official knew something, all elected officials had a right to that same information.
As public servants, we have an obligation to be open to change. Protecting the status quo or being resistant to change is often a losing proposition. We must embrace continuous improvement for ourselves, our staff, and our city. This is so important to stay relevant, current, and effective.
David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: email@example.com or (651) 281-1205.
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