The “E’s” of Action

Six Strategies to Create Strong Government Initiatives

By Thomas I Miller

Anyone who consults for government knows the odds aren’t great that your data, conclusions or recommendations will make it direct from ink or electron to gavel or ballot. The itinerary taking elected officials from truth to action is peppered with stops for counterclaims, political pressures, longstanding promises, showboating and personal prejudices. In fairness, these same stops often make for circuitous routes to action even at home when parental authorities are presented information that should lead to better behavior.

My organization conducts public opinion surveys for local governments and expects/hopes that our clients do something substantive with our findings. To help clients take advantage of resident reconnaissance, we have created examples that describe how jurisdictions use resident opinion – or any data – to improve quality of community life. We have created a mnemonic to remind clients that strong initiatives for community improvement are not simply built on new resources that might come from tax or fee increases. The “E’s of Action” are six strategies that can make multi-dimensional action successful.

The E’s of Action

Envision: Use the data to plan – make a strategic plan, land use or comprehensive plan. Connect the data to an employee plan. Pearland, Texas used its survey results showing a need for improved mobility to identify key areas for strategic transportation planning.

Engage: Data can help connect different organizations or various departments within one local government. Partnerships with the private sector or between school districts and local government or between resident advocacy groups and local government are strong candidates for improving community. Hamilton, Ohio partnered with Marriot to finance a hotel that anchored the river walk and strengthened economic development that residents felt was flagging.

Educate: Sometimes marketing and communication are needed to improve the brand or change the misconceptions held by residents of their own community or their community’s services. In Greeley, Colorado, residents felt that the image of the hometown was ragged and not improving. City Council established a marketing campaign to improve not only resident perspectives about the city but also the opinion about Greeley of residents in nearby cities.

Earmark: This action angle refers to changes in the budget. It is the one used reflexively by most local governments confronted with pressures to improve. In Pocatello, Idaho, residents made a case to city council that the local animal shelter was not habitable even for the most decrepit mongrel. Council put a question on its citizen survey and over 85 percent of respondents indicated support for an improved facility for strays. Within a year, and by more than the 66 percent minimum vote required by law, residents approved a bond issue of $2.8 million and the facility was built.

Enact: Policies are key tools for improving communities. This “E” refers to policy changes such as those that modify land use zoning, improve recycling, add or remove regulatory requirements. In Boulder, Colorado, where affordable housing was known to be rare, city council approved an ordinance to permit accessory dwelling units (ADUs), small additions to homes in residential neighborhoods where tenants were allowed to live.

Evaluate: Typically, planned evaluation can help determine the wisdom of changes made in the service of the other five E’s. More often, local governments establish performance measures and targets for tracking progress toward goals without planning traditional evaluations. In Decatur, Georgia part of performance tracking includes data from resident opinion as well as traditional measures of government output, all integrated into the annual report.

If you want to see an example of a strong initiative that used all six E’s, go here.

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Management Lessons From the Road

Déjà vu All Over Again

By Robyn-Jay Bage

Tropes are simply defined by Wikipedia as “a commonly recurring literary or rhetorical device, motif or cliché.” In movies, there are a finite number of tropes, themes and plots. Here are a few paraphrased examples:

• Always Save the Girl: The hero saves the heroine no matter what massive disaster needs tending.
• Aloof Ally: The loner doesn’t want to get involved, but joins the cause at some point—sometimes saving the day.
• Got Volunteers: A character is forced into a dangerous mission.

Other genres have their own sets of tropes. Romance novels are filled with them, such as I Hate You/I Love You or Damsel in Distress. Even entertainment wrestling repeats themes. My favorites are Getting Even, Can’t Make It to the Ropes and It’s My Fight Now.

Nonprofits have our tropes, too. But our audience (boards, donors, regulators and funders) often seems tired of hearing the same stories: Increased Need, Decreased Resources. We Helped THIS One. Overhead Blues. Unfunded Mandate Mania.

Bage julyWhy does our repetition of these themes cause so much irritation while we watch movie after movie or read book after book with the same overused themes? I have a few ideas.

We’re Bored Too
You can bet when an author writes that book of his/her heart, she is excited about it even if it’s the 10 millionth book on the shelves about the heir apparent who doesn’t want to rule. Yet when we talk about the increased need/decreased resources, we’re drained. Or worse, we are angry. When we have the opportunity to speak, whether about our work or our needs, rev it up! Show your passion for your mission and for your clients.

It’s Just Not That Interesting
We must get better at telling our stories and the stories of our clients. Leave out the jargon. Make the tale its own, relatable human trope and then make it resonate.

It’s All About You
Relationships don’t work well when there is too much focus on one party. When we read a book or watch a movie, there is no doubt that we receive something for our money and our effort—entertainment. That’s not to say we should be performers. But even our staunchest supporters want to know we care about THEM and that they have a stake in our work.

Old tropes are made fresh in movies, television and books with innovative perspectives and creativity. Our ability to engage our constituents in important conversations is dependent in part on our ability to deliver on both as well.

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A Committee of Five and the American Mind

By Jason Bowns

Photo Credit: The Guardian

Photo Credit: The Guardian

A dying declaration is a legal exception to the hearsay rule, when a dying person’s last words are admitted as evidence to prove the truth of a matter asserted. Today, we consider a declaration of creation for the American mind.

The committee’s initial work began June 11, 1776.

From Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was a landowner not known for his public speaking skills. Venturing down from the hills of Massachusetts, John Adams was known for his quick temper. Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin was a man of many talents, who never forgot how to laugh. Connecticut dispatched Roger Sherman, a judge who was active in Yale College campus life. New York attorney Robert Livingston was trained at King’s College, now Columbia University.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

When making the case that Jefferson should be first drafter of this Declaration of Independence, Adams argued,

“1) That he was a Virginian and I a Massachusettensian, 2) That he was a Southern man and I a Northern one. 3) That I had been so obnoxious for my early and constant zeal…4) And lastly…I had a great opinion of the elegance of his pen and none at all of my own.”

Bolstered by such faith and duly chosen, Jefferson set to work writing the document between June 11 and June 28, seeking periodic input from his fellow committee members along the way.

Later, he pondered the larger meaning behind this task, noting

“Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”

Photo Credit: Oroville City Elementary School District

Photo Credit: Oroville City Elementary School District

In this defining moment, Jefferson scaled his own station in life, wielding that quill pen as a vehicle of national consciousness.

While he opened no book or pamphlet while writing, he continued,

“All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”

In its succinct statement of American ideals for “a candid world,” those words remind us what we are, even when people protest, measuring how far from them our modern society may stray.

Their echoes reverberate within those who pause to hear, as the footprints of Jefferson’s quill tip may fill each of us with new breath, fresh as black ink drying on his first handwritten page. What do these mean to us today?

John Adams was not just right about the “elegance of his pen” manifesting artful language on the surface. The resilience of those words is self-evident and we gauge the strength of their elegance by the beauty they compel us to mold into the landscapes of today.

Writing during the month of June in 1776, Thomas Jefferson sought to speak on behalf of a larger American mind. He saw a sea of ideas, rising from an ancient past toward the then-present and he heard these converge into one harmonic refrain.

Independence was declared already when that Committee of Five agreed to set the words free.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:


As for what happened next, John Adams also spoke plainly,

“Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.”

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Creating Two Americas?

By Winnie Eke

Aaron Byrd and Emily Hager, both writers for The New York Times, speculate that the Supreme Court decision on affordable health care could create “The Two Americas of Health Care.” That is surprising. There have always been two Americas as clearly illustrated by Simon and former democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards.

The Obama administration’s goal is to provide health care for the other half of America and it seems many do not like that. The King v. Burwell case that disputes some provisions of the law shows how some would challenge policy and legislative mandates meant to help those in need.

The two Americas is becoming the norm—from voter restriction mandates in some states, laws that allow discrimination of some groups, unchecked police brutality of minorities and absolute disregard of a woman’s constitutional right to abortion.

How can a society that thrives on the burden of others claim to be civilized?

We have a long way to go to be like other civilized nations.

Your thought!

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When Society’s Values Go Awry

By Michael Popejoy

One little recognized fact in the history of the founding of the nation is the behavior of its founders. These people contributed many things on their best days and conducted themselves shockingly bad on their worst days. By today’s standards these historical heroes were bad boys doing good deeds. How do we explain this paradox?

From Alexander Hamilton to Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, we are served by Foundersgood people, doing good work. Their careers may lay in ruins but we all lost something essentially important—further potential good work.

As heroes fall, we need to understand why they toppled at the pinnacle of their careers, making their greatest contributions. The more public the personality the more we scrutinize their lives. This may explain why the “best and brightest” among us do not choose public service. What benefits are we denied as a society when the best refuse to serve? Further, how do we define the honorable person? What is integrity? How is it defined and interpreted? How are ethics reconciled to practical events in the real world? How far off the reservation can a public servant go before being excluded from public service?

I like to think that, by experience, we know what we can get away with in any given circumstance, but often expectations of behavior change and what was once acceptable, may not be any longer.

These questions become particularly important as we explore the efficiency and efficacy of “street level bureaucrats.” Public servants make judgments and take action on a moment’s notice without the benefit of legal counsel or “groupthink.” When things go wrong, the on-scene “command” decisions are then evaluated at length by a jury of one’s peers who were not there and not under pressure—the classic Monday Morning Quarterbacks.

We admire genius and accept the flaws of real people. Yet, we fail to understand that these geniuses are real people elevated only marginally above the rest of us. Those placed on pedestals fall hard when flaws are discovered. We act as if we never knew they existed—or maybe we never wanted to know. Wouldn’t it be a perfect world if everyone was of perfect character, particularly everyone trusted with our respect and hero worship; especially those in the public sector, our civil servants and politicians, and yes, even sports legends and religious leaders, military leaders and celebrities?

Unfortunately, they are like us—less than perfect, indeed, flawed; so, should we accept them as is or reject them when flaws become public scandal—as they surely must eventually? Can we find a middle road between acceptance and rejection; and is redemption within the scope of society?

We can begin to understand the flaws of current political, military and religious leaders when we understand flaws in historical figures that came before them. Even the founding fathers, who we are taught to admire, engaged in unsavory political conspiracies, were plagued with drinking and drugs, engaged in illegal and unethical dealings in business, politics, their personal affairs, and international relations. Does not sound too different from today’s public leaders. However, they were also bright and courageous people leading a new nation in an uncertain and hostile world. When we read of their exploits, some admirable, some not, they are still our Founding Fathers nevertheless. We are stuck with them whatever they did, right or wrong. What if they had been sent away before their greatest contributions materialized?

When a great leader falls, shouldn’t we offer forgiveness and carefully return him or her to a position where genius or at least good skills may continue to benefit society? Even if we also provide some protection from further falls? What is the price of redemption? What is the price of failing to allow a person his or her personal redemption? We cannot calculate the price of the loss of their services because their contributions do not exist after they are deposed.

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In the Climate Trenches: Local Governments Network to Leverage Impact

By  Sam Irvine

Vining marchPolitics and climate change have rarely played nice. Despite years of climate activists and scientific leaders ringing the bell, sweeping climate action has moved at a pace slower than melting glaciers. We see in the public dialogue a recurring conflict between contending forces. For all the talk and debate, the needle never seems to move. But beneath the debate and the apparent comatose state of international climate agreement, local and regional governments are collaborating to act on climate change in unprecedented and inspiring ways.

The term “local” hints to geography. As Bill McKibben commented during his Do the Math Tour for, “geography is destiny.” In almost every major city across the United States, Europe and Canada, there is an individual or team working to make their local community more sustainable. To them this sense of destiny translates into a responsibility to their local communities. As a result, these individuals and teams are on the front lines of both mitigating climate change and adapting to it. They are creating climate action plans that set emission reduction goals, implementing alternative transportation systems and cutting through political barriers to make their communities more livable and more sustainable. In short, they are moving the needle.

Susanna Sutherland, innovation fund manager for the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network (USDN) states, “Sustainability directors are the bright lights in city government… they have an innovative spirit and those are the types of people who are attracted to these types of jobs.” But mitigating and adapting to climate change is a big challenge to take on within the silos of a single city agency – a job made even more difficult when competing with basic services in tight city budgets. With so much talent spread out across entire regions, nations and continents, best practices and collaboration between these practitioners is needed now more than ever.

Susanna says the USDN works to connect these sustainability practitioners to “be a network for directors to learn from their peers.” The USDN is also helping sustainability directors find funding for projects that meet their local carbon reduction goals. Since 2009, when the USDN’s Innovation Fund was started, it has allocated $2.5 million to a growing portfolio of tools and strategies for sustainable community management. This funding encourages collaborative urban innovations, which with sound investing strategies and the right partners can lead to scalable solutions.

Policies to combat the effects of climate change and frameworks for implementing those strategies already exist. USDN is building a repository of these tools so sustainability directors can choose the best and most transferrable initiatives for their communities. This approach saves time and money. Often sustainability directors are offices of one. Access to tried and true solutions is imperative as it allows them to mirror the successes and avoid the past failures.

Isolated, a single city or region does not have the capacity to end the threat of climate change. The problem is simply too systemic. However, if the people in those organizations are given new ways to collaborate, and offered better ways to share their ideas, then the conditions may exist for those ideas to spread. It is through networks and communities that many humans tend to find strength and inspiration. As the connections and transfer of ideas in those networks grow, so does the opportunity for great innovation and the possibility for real change.

Sam Irvine is a sustainability blogger scholar at Presidio Graduate School where he is working toward his MBA/MPA in Sustainable Management. He is one of the co-founders of the economy, policy and culture @samuel_irvine

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Performance Management Is Not All About Data

By Thomas I Miller

The ether swirls with data like rain in a hurricane. Public managers are supposed to capture those drops; categorize them by source, content and value; allocate them to appropriate receptacles and set about reading them like crystal balls. You can think of all those data in the aggregate as the core management tool of 21st century business.

If it hadn’t become clear, however, management observers recently have noticed that for all the mimicking of the private sector that most management systems endow, the public sector’s adoption of private sector management tools does not itself make for effective management. Howard Riser recently made this surprisingly obvious point about standard business practices: “the business management practices—strategic planning, goal setting, performance measurement, etc.—do not explain a company’s success. Every business, including those that fail, relies on those ideas.” He could have added to his list– collecting a lot of data.

Whether public or private, the love affair with data is mostly a photo-shop romance. The imagined value of data is growing in local government as managers feel pressed to join the big data stampede or to measure lots of activities because measurement is good. Savvy local government managers, ahead of many colleagues, gather performance data intending to improve efficiency and community quality of life. They may have the protocols for uniform data collection, barrels of ‘clean’ numbers, analytic software to crunch those numbers, comparison data from other jurisdictions that follow the same data collection practices, but those public managers still can fail.

To understand what failure is, it’s important to know what success is not. In performance management, success is not timely accumulation of tons of clean and relevant data that, with good comparisons, can be used to tout the fact that government collects data or even to encourage department heads to provide better services more cheaply. Success, built atop those basement dungeons where data often are tortured into talking, is measured in the metrics of a better place to live. Making data work toward that goal takes more than good data accumulation and analysis. It takes leadership committed to using the data for the benefit of the community.

Mark Rockwell noted in talking about the success of IT projects that, “This is not really a technology problem as much as a skill and cultural one. Culture is the biggest issue.” Tech will not solve America’s problems any more than a downpour of data without motivated leaders who insist on making the data useful.

Strong local government managers will demand that the data they collect and curate be used to change things for the better. That will mean budget, personnel, communication or policy changes that are data-driven. It often will mean relying on ‘bottom line’ data – resident opinion about community quality – to guide how data will lead to transformation and to determine if actions result in progress or regress.

Metrics matter but management must turn numbers into action.

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