President's Column: NLC Works to Change with the Times

February 6, 2012
by Ted Ellis

It happened again. This time, with my 6-year-old grandson. The subject was postage and someone used the expression "to lick a stamp." His reaction: "Why would anyone want to lick a stamp?" He has never known a time when the USPS sold anything that wasn't self-adhesive.

Times change - often so subtly that we don't notice them until one of us uses an expression that leaves our much-younger or more-tech-savvy colleague sporting a quizzical look.

As local officials, we often find that our institutions adapt to change more slowly than the environment in which we operate. Sometimes, this sluggishness spills over into our organizations.

Not all of the National League of Cities' methods of doing business have changed to keep up with the times.

This is more than a structural or organizational problem. In fact, NLC has currently assembled a staff team that is making it the "go-to" authority for matters concerning cities. In doing so, our organizational chart has changed substantially over the past couple of years. Our membership, however, is still functioning in a decades-old model that sometimes doesn't fit the times. It's like taking the best NASCAR driver and putting him or her behind the wheel of a '69 Valiant and expecting to win races.

This isn't for a lack of trying. Our financial challenges as cities, towns and villages have proved once again that working hard just isn't enough. We need to look at the ways we are deploying staff resources, as well as our own brainpower. 

Part of the new challenge is to become more focused - to "drill down" into those advocacy efforts that can be directed toward more effective results. I must admit that when I served on a policy and advocacy committee for over a decade, we often found ourselves spending more time wordsmithing a policy than we did in planning and executing a program of advocacy. We don't have the luxury of that approach any more. Artfully articulating policy alone doesn't get the job done any more than repeating wedding vows ensures an excellent marriage.

Conversely, another part of the challenge is to expand our tunnel vision. Many of us initially came to NLC with an interest that landed us in a particular council, advocacy committee or constituency group. Today's environment demands that we take our rich experiences from these groups and spread them into other, seemingly unconnected places. When we adopt the mantra that "all of us are smarter than one of us," we begin to find new ways to use our brainpower and our political power.

Likewise, we need to be creative in our approaches. I have asked our staff to consider trying new ways of communicating, new ways of educating and new ways of helping us interact with each other. 

Sometimes, technology makes the solutions obvious. More often, we need to make a conscious effort to "get inside the minds" of officials who would benefit from NLC but haven't found a compelling reason to join or become more active. As we seek to be more creative, we know that some things we try just won't go as planned. Many ideas will bear fruit, however, and those ideas will form the foundation for even greater creativity. 

Our task as leaders is to lead-not just keep up. We have inherited an environment that will continuously and rapidly be changing. We have a choice: we can be dragged kicking and screaming along the way or we can keep running ahead and embracing the changes as they come our way. There are no other options.

I look forward to the "running and embracing" strategy, knowing that we must also be constantly aware of those subtle changes that sneak into our lives with the passage of time. After all, a generation from now, a little boy will look up at his grandfather and ask: "What's a stamp?"