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 recently spoke with a retired man who has volunteered to work with the city to improve recycling efforts. He had worked in the corporate environment, and this was his first brush with public service. He lamented how difficult some citizens are, even with volunteers, and how oblivious and unconcerned they are with the challenges of providing services to a widely divergent public. I opined that, indeed, some citizens have an over-inflated sense of “entitlement.”
His response was so startling in its clarity that I felt the need to write this column around it. He said, almost absent-mindedly, “Yes, but the definition of entitlement in this case is: Ignorance, augmented by arrogance, which leads to intolerance.”
I sat in stunned admiration when that rolled off his tongue, and blurted out, “What did you just say?”
“Geez, I don’t really know,” he retorted with a dazed look on his face. “What did I say?” He knew he had said something profound, but it seemed his statement had raced ahead of his brain.
For the next couple of minutes we reconstructed exactly what he had said, and when we finally were able to look at the words on paper, they were an epiphany.
Taxpayer Knows Best
The vast majority of citizens we serve daily in the parks and rec business are good, down-to-earth people, fair and balanced, willing to talk through problems and issues, and arrive at a reasonable solution that serves the majority’s needs.
But then there is that small percentage of citizens who cause a great wailing and gnashing of teeth because they simply have no room for compromise, no tolerance for any viewpoint except their own. These are the folks my friend was describing with his perceptive phrasing.
These are the citizens who have no qualms about telling you or your staff, “I’m a taxpayer, and I pay your salary, so you’ve got to do it this way.” They possess a feeling of entitlement that enables them to rise above reason, reality and common courtesy to perch on a cloud overlooking the masses, singular in their view of themselves and the world that revolves around them.
Ignorance Equals Intolerance
The “ignorance” to which my friend refers is that the Entitled Ones don’t take the time to learn all the facts of a situation, but make judgments and comments based on incomplete information. It’s more beneficial for them to complain and cast aspersions than to consider the possibility that they may have to share some of their entitlement. The “arrogance” is a belief that their perspective is of a higher order than anyone else’s, thus making them “intolerant” to other points of view.
I suspect that anyone who has served more than one week in a public-service environment has confronted people like these. In the challenging business of providing quality recreation to large populations with seemingly infinite wants and needs, it is simply impossible to please everyone all the time. But compromise is elusive when one or more parties in the negotiation are so myopic that they can’t see beyond their parochial view and try to understand what others involved also need.
So, how to deal with the Entitled Few? There isn’t a magic answer to this conundrum. What I do believe is that, as public administrators, our job is to find ways to deal with them. Ignoring them is an option, I suppose, but that normally doesn’t work. I view my position as on the front line of solving a problem. If I can’t solve it, the next level is the city manager and/or elected officials. If they become involved, I will eventually be directed to solve it anyway. My job is to enable them to focus on their jobs. Can anyone else identify with this scenario?
A Vocal Few
What I try to keep in mind is that basically everyone wants to have his or her opinion heard. Often it is a matter of meeting face-to-face to discuss the situation and to try to articulate the big picture. As public administrators, our task is to create opportunities where these voices can be heard in a safe and professional setting.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Some people just won’t listen to reason, no matter what the setting. It seems I spend 98 percent of my time and effort dealing with the problems of the vocal 2 percent of the population, while 98 percent of the equally deserving constituents–the silent majority–only receive 2 percent of my time. Unfortunately, this can become a pattern for administrators at the local government level. While it is generally true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, that doesn’t always mean that the wagon to which the wheel is attached is headed in the right direction.
There are many people much smarter than I in the recreation field and with infinitely more patience, who have no doubt learned how to deal with these “entitled” personalities. I would like to hear how you deal with this issue.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org