The Importance of Looking Beyond Your Own Boundaries

The Wyandot County Courthouse in Upper Sandusky, Ohio

The Wyandot County Courthouse in Upper Sandusky, Ohio Michael Grass

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Route Fifty’s executive editor shares insights covering state and local government day in and day out for nearly five years.

All good road trips must come to an end, and this week, my trip on Route Fifty as this news site’s executive editor is coming to a close. I’m off to new adventures but wanted to take a few moments to share some insights about state and local government, an area that I’ve been covering and monitoring day in and day out for nearly five years—first at GovExec.com’s State and Local channel and then with the launch of Route Fifty in April 2015.

You often hear the phrase “breaking down silos” at government management conferences—to the point where it’s overused and jargony. But it’s vitally important. Is your government or agency built to serve the purposes of bureaucracy and red tape or is it structured to serve constituents and the community at large?

While it’s important to break down those silos in any organization, in state and local government it’s critically important to look beyond your own jurisdictional boundaries. Yes, every state and locality is unique, but as I’ve discovered at Route Fifty, there’s far more that state and local governments share in common than their multitude of differences.

The good thing I can report is that there are plenty of state and local governments that compare notes, are inspired by one another and adapt ideas and best practices to improve their work and the communities they serve. There are academic organizations, non-profit networks and professional associations that help facilitate the exchange of ideas, wisdom and knowhow across jurisdictional boundaries at the state and local level.

At many of the conferences I’ve attended and covered in recent years, whether it be the National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, What Works Cities or Engaging Local Government Leaders (just to name a few), I’ve often left with this key takeaway: If the public saw more of this side of government—the collaboration and exchange of ideas—the level of distrust in government would be far less than it currently is.

In July 2016, I traveled to Long Beach, California for NACo’s annual conference, where thousands of county officials from across the nation had gathered to discuss policy, exchange ideas and learn from one another.

I went back to a Facebook post I wrote then sharing some of my observations from the NACo conference, which happened right around the same time as the Republican National Convention in Cleveland:

I know that this election cycle, there's been an incredible amount of distrust of government and politics—and there are certainly good reasons for that. But I feel like I've been living in an alternative universe the past couple days here at the National Association of Counties annual conference in Long Beach. This is a non-partisan organization whose members—mainly county commissioners—check their party identification at the door and collaboratively talk about issues that you really aren't hearing much about because of how the national political circus drowns out everything else.

Remember, national politicians aren't usually confronted with the daily nuts and bolts of policy implementation and program management (though they certainly aren't afraid to share their opinions about it.). It's the county and municipal governments—and to a certain extent state governments—that actually have to deal with problems and challenges day in day out, often with limited resources and usually out of the spotlight. County governments, in particular, are the ones on the front lines dealing with the impacts of mental health, substance abuse and social services, just to name a few. (I just had a meeting with a county commissioner from Colorado whose nephew died of an opioid overdose and that tragedy has led him to push for a new public health data-sharing effort that will, hopefully, help intergovernmental coordination among multiple counties to implement new policy action.)

If all of you who are burned out by American politics were here in Long Beach, you might have a different outlook on the state of governance in America. Yes, it's screwed up, but there are plenty of folks trying to do the right thing, find solutions to really difficult problems that can't be easily solved—or, for that matter, summed up in a TV-friendly sound bite. A conference like this might even give you hope about our country's future and our ability to bridge our differences and solve problems.

And we have so many problems to solve and divisions to bridge as a nation!

The big challenge our state and local governments face: The public is distracted and often unappreciative of the work that is going on behind the scenes. When you do a Google News search for the term “city manager,” you’ll generally see headlines about when a city manager is hired and fired, and less often about the actual work they do.

That’s not to say state and local governments are flawless. There are plenty of bad apples, awful decisions and misinformed practices in the public sector just as there are in the private sector. But there’s far more good work going on in states and localities than the public realizes. Many fine government professionals toil away mostly in obscurity as they’re working to solve tough challenges in their communities. Governments aren’t always at fault for skewed public perceptions. It’s hard to get their local newspaper interested in the nuts and bolts of their work, assuming they still have a local newspaper. Social media often elevates loud voices driven by ideology and not by reason or the facts at hand.

At Route Fifty, we’ve been on the lookout for good ideas that transcend jurisdictional boundaries ever since we launched. The past few years of building Route Fifty has given me a wealth of insights into how state and local governments are trying to address some of the nation’s most difficult challenges and introduced me to countless government professionals and elected officials trying improve the communities they serve.

That work will continue at Route Fifty.

So what’s next for me? That’s unclear at the moment. In the immediate near-term, I’m planning some fun road trips and working on some side projects as I figure out what comes next professionally with the hopes of leveraging the wealth of knowledge and insights I’ve built the past five years focused on our states and localities. (If you have ideas, don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter or LinkedIn!)

In our city halls, county administration buildings and state capitals, there’s so much more important work to be done. The good thing is that there are plenty of people devoted to that work, even if the public is oblivious to their dedication and ingenuity.

Thanks for reading. Onward and upward!

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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