Where The Rubber Meets The Road

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 a bit behind on my reading, so forgive me for just now responding to an article in the PRB September 2008 issue … but then it proves the timeless benefit of articles (and advertising) in this magazine.

I read Donald Bessler’s article, “Good Enough For Government Work,” and I completely agree with his premise. It really parallels my article in the February 2009 edition, “Does Anybody Like Being a Bureaucrat?” I hadn’t read his article until after I’d written and sent mine off, so it was refreshing to see that we hold such supporting views.

Essentially, Bessler says that in local government, we live in a fish bowl: “Everything we as staff or our advisory boards and city councils do is upfront and center stage. Involved citizens, special interests and the local media closely monitor and report on our activities.”

This is right in line with what I put forth, that the impact public administrators have on local government directly affects local quality of life, and the daily decisions made have a real effect on citizens and our staffs. These can be positive or negative, depending on the quality of our decisions.

For that reason, our decisions, as Bessler points out, can’t be just “good enough for government work.”

I think our decisions are especially revealing in these unprecedented, financially trying times. I recently read an article in Governing magazine that highlighted the idea that our true character isn’t revealed when things are going right. Our true character and values reveal themselves when things are going wrong and we are under stressful conditions.

Total Agreement

I believe this to be a consistent truth. I’ve seen recent examples on a governmental level in the ways that different cities, counties and states have chosen to deal with the financial crisis.

Considering that most people alive today never had to deal with circumstances like those of the Great Depression, it is an extreme time that calls for extreme measures. Each government entity is in a different set of circumstances, ranging from riding high on financially stable clouds to crashing on financial rocks they still can’t see.

I think everybody can agree on that. What seems to be different is how elected and appointed officials and hired public administrators choose to approach the problems.

As I experience this phenomenon and read about it nationally, it seems the most successful responses are those that are “inclusive” and not “exclusive.” The solutions that appear to have widest appeal are those that involve much preliminary public input and involvement of all levels of staff. The solutions that seem to draw the least fire are those by which everyone affected by the actions have an opportunity to give input and opinions before decisions are made.

A Divine Principle

In complicated times such as these, simplicity is a virtue. The Golden Rule becomes the guiding principle: Treat others as you would want to be treated.

Would you like to come to work one day and be told that you will not have to show up the next day, or the next week, or the next …? Would you want to be told, with no prior warning, background information or time to make other plans, you can keep your job, but will have to give up medical benefits or vacation?

The bottom line is that human beings generally want to be treated with respect. We don’t like surprises--or at least not bad surprises. Most people like to have their opinions considered, even if they aren’t agreed with or acted upon. Most people want to feel as though they have some control of their and their family’s (and staff’s) destiny.

It’s easy for public administrators to become jaded, and those of us in the recreation field are no exception. We try to provide quality services to large and varied audiences using limited resources that, in today’s environment, continue to erode. Unfortunately, expectations don’t decline with the funding. As one citizen recently told our city council, “I want the same level of service, but I don’t want to pay extra for it.”

I hope I’m not reading into Bessler’s intent, and if I am, mea culpa, but I think both of us are saying that, regardless of the circumstances, we need to avoid the “bunker mentality,” as he put it. Especially in times of duress, we need to consider fully the impact of our actions, and think about the legacy we leave.

I certainly don’t consider myself an “expert,” or that this is the final word. There are other takes on this issue. What are some ideas you perceive as solutions--or at least coping mechanisms--to the financial crisis? Share them with me or the PRB staff and thus with your peers. You never know who will provide an idea that can help us all make it through these financial straits.

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 dls@peachtree-city.org