That’s not your job

If you have the chance to see Michigan State professor Dave Ivan speak, take advantage of it. I’ve heard him give four different talks in the past year and have come away with pages of new ideas each time. He’s “that guy;” the one who inspires, challenges and engages people who work in local government. I crossed paths with Dr. Ivan in Rice Lake this week, at the annual Wisconsin Rural Summit.

The Rural Summit is a gathering hosted by Wisconsin Rural Partners. The League is one of several sponsors for this event. The summit attracts about one hundred or so city, village, town and county leaders, economic development directors and private citizens who are interested in sustaining small town living in this state. At this particular Rural Summit, Dr. Ivan challenged my notion of what is, and what is not, the job of local government.

Should local governments be in the job of negotiating commercial building leases? Most of us would say, “Of course not,” but that’s exactly what city leaders in Jonesville, Michigan are doing. Jonesville is a typical older small Midwestern city; established in the 1800’s with a current population in the neighborhood of 2,200. If you go to the web site you’ll see the usual tabs for city meetings, schedules for brush pickup and photos of a downtown streetscape. You’ll also find commercial real estate listings. According to Dave Ivan, the city is an active participant in bringing small businesses together with downtown real estate opportunities.

Like many of our older cities and villages, Jonesville struggles to keep its downtown vibrant. But unlike many places, the city doesn’t sit back and wait for commerce to happen. City leaders take an active role. And the result? Jonesville has an old-fashioned-looking, but modern and vibrant downtown with a growing business base.

Dr. Ivan rattled off other communities that went off the usual track to get things done, including a small town in Kansas where the city built and owns the one and only grocery/convenience store, as well as builds and sells housing (at cost) to attract young people.

The role of local government isn’t limited to snow plowing and brush pickup. In a representative democracy, the role of local government is whatever your citizens need it to be. Does your community need housing, but can’t attract a developer? Consider the village being the developer. Are you a “food desert,” without a grocery, or even a convenience store? Build one. Don’t wait around for an entrepreneur in shining armor or a state politician waving a grant application; take the initiative and do it.

I’d like to propose a simple four-step process for you as a village leader when faced with a problem no one seems to be solving: 1) Does this thing need to be done; would it help your community remain viable? 2) Is someone already doing it? 3) Is there community consensus that it needs to be done (consensus does not mean unanimity)? 4) Can it be done from a legal and financial perspective? If the answer to questions 1, 3 and 4 is yes and the answer to question 2 is no, then do it!

Stop waiting for someone outside your community to come to your rescue; they’re either busy rescuing someone else, or they’re just not interested in your particular village. There are resources available to Wisconsin communities through state and federal agencies, regional economic development organizations and the powerful private marketplace. But those resources don’t come to you; you have to go after them. And don’t sell yourself short; you have resources too. The most important resources you have are your sense of your community and your concern for the people who live there today and tomorrow. Those people are expecting you to lead them. Lead!

I attend a lot of meetings and conferences where big problems are discussed and a variety of solutions are displayed. There’s a common element to the solutions. What I hear over and over again are not success stories that came to the community from without; they are success stories that started from within. They were started by a village president who kept asking questions until someone said yes. A city administrator who wouldn’t accept the “fact” that “we just don’t do that here.” Or a mayor who wouldn’t quit when told, “businesses aren’t interested in downtowns anymore.”

Successful municipal leadership isn’t magic, genius, luck or a gift from the State Legislature. It’s persistence. It’s hard work. It’s an unspoken vision of a community handed to your grandchildren in better shape than it was when you took office. That’s your job.

It’s time for the New Localism

I just finished reading Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book, “The New Localism, How Cities can Thrive in the Age of Populism.” Perhaps not surprisingly, my friends and family members gave me plenty of privacy when they saw what I was reading (they usually nodded politely and then scurried away), but it was worth the few hours of isolation. Katz and Nowak are calling on local leaders to step up and lead in a whole new way. True students of local government should read the book.

The authors argue cities and villages have more power than they think and more problem-solving capacity than they know, but they need to organize differently. “Conventional wisdom holds that cities are powerless, mere creatures of the state, subordinate political units of nations. But conventional wisdom is wrong. It mistakenly treats cities as just another layer of government rather than as what they truly are: powerful networks of institutions and ecosystems of actors that coproduce the economy and co-solve problems.”

Katz and Nowak affirmed something that I often notice about Wisconsin’s best municipal leaders: they seem to make things happen without doing anything at all. “Conventional leadership norms do not quite fit the configuration of localities. The path to collective problem solving relies on leaders who can navigate and leverage the networked reality of urban power. Cities are neither vertically integrated companies nor governments that have a set command-and-control structure. Rather, they are networks of public, private and civic institutions that coproduce the economy and cogovern critical aspects of city life. The essence of a successful local leader, therefore, is the ability to bring groups of people together to solve problems and do grand things that they cannot do as individuals. To reflect the distributed genius of the city, leaders must be adept at creating and stewarding horizontal relationships rather than issuing and executing hierarchical mandates.”

While I tend to get a little cross-eyed when people start talking about infrastructure and municipal finance, the book proposes an intriguing new twist on the national infrastructure debate. Rather than ask the President and Congress to design a new program of roads and bridges, complete with new forms and regulations, why not turn the process around? “Infrastructure is a complex business, comprised of multiple investment sectors as diverse as a water treatment plant, a river or lake reclamation, an airport or port expansion, a road, rail, or transit hub retrofit, a rail station redevelopment. Each is different in terms of project design, revenue streams, and market impacts, and in how they are governed, regulated, owned and operated. As such federal plans for infrastructure often are not responsive enough to local needs and concerns. What if we reversed the process to flow from the local level to the federal? What if several governors, mayors and county executives, from across both parties, nominated a group of emblematic projects? A trusted intermediary could use a uniform template that made the business case for each project and then sorted out options for federal financing. In this way, Congress could ultimately enact legislation and provide tools fit to purpose and designed to succeed.”

Leading thru networks? Congress in reactive funding mode, listening to local practitioners, as opposed to command-and-control mode, dictating to them? Sounds revolutionary. On the other hand, maybe that’s just enough revolution to help move us all forward.