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How government leaders can find priorities amid the chaos

Tech entrepreneur and CEO Claire Haidar is a student pilot. 

She recently took her first night flight at the controls.

She was unprepared for how different a pilot’s depth perception is in the dark compared with daytime.

Landing at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, her destination, has its own stressors for a student pilot. At a Bravo airspace such as DFW, pilots of smaller planes are expected to be efficient because there are so many jetliners in the airspace.

As Haidar began her landing approach, she didn’t feel ready. She asked the control tower for a “360,” permission to turn around and try the landing again. 

After that, she still didn’t feel ready for her second approach, so she asked for another 360. And a third.

On her third approach, she was more familiar with her surroundings and had a grip on the environment, so she executed a safe landing.

Speaking at the International City/County Management conference, Haidar used that example to remind local government professionals that everyone is flying in “uncharted territory” right now, given the pandemic and the country’s racial reckoning. 

“Ask for the 360,” she urged.

To deal with the disorientation that comes with perceived chaos, it’s important to revert back to basic principles, says Haidar.

Acknowledge that we’re all living life in deficit

Haidar did some rudimentary math to calculate the typical amount of time people spend on various areas of their lives (work, family duties such as child-rearing or caregiving, sleep, etc.) and deduced that most people are six days short every month. Add on another 2.5 days for social media users, and the deficit grows.

Local government professionals must prioritize ruthlessly, says Haidar. This ruthless prioritization can help save employees from burnout and fortify them to serve more effectively.

Become a student of experiential design

It’s important to understand how to create experiences for people, says Haidar. "Learn how to hook your people into their societies, learn how to create experiences that are so meaningful, so disruptive, and so compelling, that people don't want to leave your city," Haidar says. "Ultimately, that is what is going to lead us to a healthier, better society. The way your city makes people feel matters. It matters more than you realize."

Be prepared to tell the difficult truth

City managers must change the way they communicate with their constituents and tell people the tough news about what it will take to improve. "Very often, because we're not ruthless in our prioritization and because we don't silence the voices that we need to silence, we can't have these conversations because we're distracted.

"People like truth. It hurts, it's painful. They react against it," Haidar continues. "But ultimately, we like it. And so we need to change how we communicate about that end goal, and what it's going to take to get there."

Don’t underestimate the role of data

Respect the role of data in creating the community you want, encourages Haidar. Data can help us discover what matters most to people and feed into the ruthless prioritization that helps us refine our focus. 

It’s data, Haidar says, that helps local government professionals discern what they need to do to engage their residents.  

Haidar offered several examples for why data matters to the people in your city.

"To the old lady who has been living on the street for 50 years, and who sees her entire neighborhood going through gentrification, whose grandkids have grown up there, whose great-grandchildren are currently growing up there.

"To the policewoman who's sitting down with her children at night. Children who, in their innocence, want to be like their mom. And she's actively discouraging her children from following in her career footsteps, because her life is at risk like it's never been before.

"The young mom who is currently breastfeeding and is in an absolute haze postpartum. And who’s trying to navigate a toddler.

"To the dad who’s trying to keep it together because his wife is in their postpartum haze.

"To the person needing to retire, who doesn't really want to retire, but who's tired."

Haidar asked all government professionals to consider how they speak to these people, how they meet them on their terms. Speaking for herself, she said she would be much more active in her city if its manager engaged with her on a personal level, about “things that really meant something to me.”

What is the sweet spot between the fundamentals of time management and the sophisticated marriage of data and experiential design for communities? 

Perhaps the answer lies with taking your own “360” to reorient yourself to what your residents want.  

 

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Paula Kiger edits ICMA SmartBrief and other government and nonprofit sector newsletters. She also co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and as @biggreenpen on Twitter.