Making Room for Risk - and Reward - at City Hall

February 10, 2014

By David M. Sander

David M. Sander, Ph.D., is a guest author and a Diamond Level award recipient through NLC University. Dr. Sander was first elected to the city council in Rancho Cordova, California when the city incorporated in 2003.  He served as mayor in 2007 and 2012. He is past chair of the First Tier Suburbs Council at the National League of Cities and lectures regularly on the issues surrounding older suburban communities.

Without risk, there is no reward.

We all know this to be true, but how does it work for local governments?  Is there room for risk at city hall?
 
We live in a society that is increasingly risk averse. Our politics have followed this trend, and many politicians have found success in selling the public on the idea that government can remove much risk from our daily lives with more laws, regulations and programs.
 
This public demand for risk reduction is intensified by the media, who often report on government mistakes and make them front page news. This in turn causes government employees to go to a great deal of effort to eliminate risks from their work so that they will not be blamed if something does not go as planned.  That’s also the natural bureaucratic tendency – avoid any risk to stay out of “trouble”.  And of course we as elected officials decry any mistake made by public agencies as something we need to fix and make sure never happens again.
 
Taking these trends together - has risk taking become impossible in local government?  If so, at what cost has that change occurred?
 
Without some risk-taking there is no innovation, and as a result less opportunity for improved city services and growth. Clearly, this is no way to operate any organization, least of all one as important as local government. This is particularly true in our age of having to do more with less.  This period of relative austerity in local government is not likely to change in the foreseeable future, and innovation is essential in achieving success in this environment.
 
We must be willing and able to take some risks if local governments are to be effective partners with their citizens in building better communities. So what can be done to mitigate the many pressures on city staff and city councils that contribute to their aversion to taking even reasonable risks?
 
Here’s an approach I took on this issue in my community – and it just might bear some fruit in yours.  I call it the “Innovation Vaccine”.  Every year, our city’s mayor gives a number of talks, including a January address to community leaders profiling the year ahead, and later on a State of the City address.  As mayor last year I titled my January address, “12 Great Things for Rancho Cordova in 2012”.  Number ten on the list read: “During 2012, We Will Screw Something Up”. That’s all the slide said. I read it and then silently waited for the response.  Many in the room thought it was a joke.  Others just looked confused.
 
That is when I made my case – the only way for a local government not to make a mistake is for us to do nothing, and try anything new. Any real effort at innovation or improvement will engender the risk of failure or malfunction. If local governments are expected to never make mistakes, then it is essentially guaranteed they will never innovate, never reinvent themselves and never try anything novel.
 
At the end of my talk, this was the point that had most of the room talking. And I continued to hear about it during the year from community leaders.  Comments like, “Hey Mayor, have you pushed the envelope enough yet to screw something up?”
 
Willingness to accept risk and to understand that everything may not go perfectly can be very powerful. This willingness is basically a vaccine against something going awry at city hall in the process of innovation or service improvement.
 
Of course, the risks we choose to take on at city hall need to be managed – not all risk is good. Issues and innovations should be carefully studied and discussed by city leadership.  And local governments should be ready to adapt rapidly as any change or innovation is developed and applied. There will likely be bumps in the road. Acknowledge them, adapt and move on. This is the best way to manage local risk-taking and innovation, and this process points the way to better functioning local government, one that is able to meet more of the needs and concerns of its citizens.
 
Small actions like these won’t fix the risk-avoidance problem we face as a society, but it just might give some cities enough wiggle room to really innovate and take enough risks to find a better way of doing something. And that would benefit all of us.