Director, can you spare a favor?

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 49 views 

Dear Fort Smith city board members:

Would like to ask you gentlemen three favors. The favors aren’t necessarily for me — they are the synthesis of citizen wishes collected during the past several years.

• FAVOR #1: Communication
Ed Vampola lives in Fort Smith. In early 2008, Ed shared his story and it was posted in a two-part piece I wrote when employed at the Times Record. He retired here after a 35-year career building important communication gadgets for the aerospace industry. Ed and his team struggled to build the small communications device for the space shuttles (which are still used today). What started off as a simple, lightweight container had to be pressurized, reconfigured to withstand the pressurization and yet stay within almost unreasonable weight limits.

The rules changed. Budgets changed. Expectations changed. His story provides the analogy that communication is important and, when useful, difficult. Rules change. People change. Situations change.

Unfortunately, changes to our rules and people and situations are, at best, garbled. How better connected and informed would Fort Smithians be with city issues and city government if for the past several decades the city had a 2-3 person team responsible for internal and external communications? We’re not talking about a propaganda machine, but instead a group of trained communication professionals able to create a practical and productive communication loop — message, feedback, message review, feedback, and so on and so forth.

Sure, this would be a $150,000 to $250,000 budget expense (less than 0.625% of the city’s general fund budget). But how much does ignorance cost? What price is reasonable for a process that produces a more informed and engaged citizenry?

And, sure, a professional PR/ombudsman team won’t reach all. You won’t reach the folks who are most assured of piles and piles and piles of fraud waste and abuse at the city. Evidence? They don’t need no stinkin’ specific evidence because pretty much all government is wasteful and the $115 million or $280 million or $45 million or whatever million-dollar city budget is just ripe with abuse because someone once said or did something or didn’t do or didn’t say something that proves the city could cut millions of dollars out of its budget. We could post a story on The City Wire about the virtues of motherhood, and comments from the vocal minority of rabid aginners would quickly note that motherhood would be easier if the city didn’t waste so much money.

You are not going to reach those folks with a consistent and professional PR approach, but you may limit the effect of the enjoyable angry by creating a more enlightened citizen pool. On the other side of that coin, enlightened citizens would boost the odds of preventing a well-intended board of directors from making policy or spending mistakes.

As Ed discovered, communication has to withstand political pressure, almost unreasonable weights of perception and the implacable emotion resulting from near-impenetrable misinformation.

• FAVOR #2: Stay focused on the big picture.
To do that, you first have to develop a big picture.

You guys do these retreats and set big goals and the next time you review the big goals is at the next retreat or the annual budget meetings. Odd. When you guys sat down to review the 2009 priorities, there was little to no mention of the 2008 priorities. Odd.

In between these retreats, you fellas seem to get lost in the minutia. And when you aren’t lost in that, the ideas you put forth are all over the map. My job is to closely watch what you guys do and say, and even I continue to be amazed and confused at some of the board meanderings. It’s difficult to imagine how frustrated the average citizen becomes when trying to mentally digest your actions and comments.

Part of staying focused on the big picture requires …

• FAVOR #3: Speak with one voice on the big picture stuff. (aka, don’t micromanage)
Anyone who attended boot camp has seen the poor recruit who screws up and finds himself targeted by several drill instructors yelling different commands. With every move, the recruit meets one request but fails on the others, which exacerbates the recruit’s dilemma. At boot camp the goal is to create soldiers and sailors able to function under pressure. In our city government, however, varied and numerous commands from city board members to city staff results in pressure creating an inability to function.

The recent example of this was on budget cutting. You directors publicly asked city staff to come up with budget-cutting ideas. Then a few of you called the city administrator privately and said city employees should suffer because the private sector has suffered. Unfortunately, the city administrator caved to this pressure and we ended up with an unnecessary drama that hurt morale and wasted the time of hundreds of city employees. When all was said and done, the budget-cutting process had nothing to do with employee cuts. The city administrator took the full blame for this, but you fellas know the real story. Shame on you.

As you know, we have a lot of good citizens in our fair city. While many citizens have pet projects and pet peeves, it’s a good bet most would simply prefer the city board be professional, focused, selfless, fiscally disciplined, politically disciplined and consistent big picture macro-managers.

To summarize: Communicate better. Stay focused. Don’t micromanage.

That should not be too much for which to ask, but it probably is.