Budget Woes Are Re-defining “Public Service”

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

I am fairly certain, without doing any surveys, that at this writing most readers in the recreation field are being affected by this unprecedented nationwide financial crisis.

It’s definitely unprecedented in the 12 years I’ve been involved in municipal government. I’ve written before that nearly every year our financial prognosticators swear that the upcoming year is going to be the worst ever and the wolves will be at the door. That is, after all, their job–to keep the rest of us focused on the bottom line as we provide services to citizens.

Knocking At The Door

This time, however, the wolves are not only at the door, they’re inside the house chasing us around like Goldilock’s grandma. By even the most optimistic projections, 2010 is going to be a watershed year that will set the operational trend of local, state and national governments for decades.

I’m wondering if the rest of you in recreation-land feel the large target being superimposed onto your being as you sit through budget hearings. It seems that in crunch times it is most expedient to go after the “lower-hanging fruit,” as one finance person termed it. By its nature, parks and recreation hangs very low on the tree. Public safety generally is on the top, while others are somewhere in the middle.

A New Tool

If anyone wants to read a good overview of how cities and counties across the nation are handling this financial challenge, go to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Web site and read the report titled “Navigating the Fiscal Crisis: Tested Strategies for Local Leaders.” The paper was prepared for ICMA by the Alliance for Innovation, and was researched and written by experts at Arizona State University.

Published in January 2009, the paper concedes that “this economic crisis is deeper and more severe than what we have experienced in the past 50 years.” A 19-page executive summary essentially looks at lessons learned from past economic downturns, and how some of the more-successful local governments navigated the dangerous waters and came through still afloat. You may link to all the research that went into the paper for a more in-depth study.

The report answers five questions:

1. What are the dimensions of the current crisis, and what defines it?

2. What has worked in previous fiscal-cutback efforts?

3. What characterizes organizations that cope better with fiscal stress than others?

4. Why is innovation in hard times so critical, yet what positive actions can still be taken?

5. How can local government actions contribute to economic recovery?

I am going to make this paper required reading for my senior staff. It provides global insight into the nuts and bolts of how we got where we are. There is even a “wiki” set up for this report. A wiki is a page or collection of Web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content, using a simplified markup language.

Regardless of how we got here, I think this crisis is going to change the nature of how we provide service to the public. As Janet and Robert Denhardt theorize in their book, The New Public Service, we will be relying more on citizens helping themselves rather than having things provided for them. (The Denhardts contributed to the ICMA report as well.)

No Bottom Line

As staffs are reduced, we will be forced to reorganize our operations to try to provide the same level of service–or as close as possible–as before. Or, we will cut services. The bottom line is that the bottom line–i.e., funding–just won’t be there. It will be a painful process but, as the ICMA report points out, if local organizations are well-managed and take the long view, they can turn crisis into opportunity.

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