AFI: Since we are talking about leadership, what do you see as the trend in leadership right now in addressing the crisis?
Rebecca Ryan: I think leaders today fall into a couple of different camps. One is the leaders who are great in a crisis, and they have snapped into action. These are leaders, city managers, elected officials and others who are starting to think beyond the apex. They're starting to put task forces together around how recovery will look. They’re likely leaving the crisis communications to other people, and they're starting to think beyond the crisis.
And then you've got other leaders, frankly, who feel like they're out of their depths. These people are very good at maintaining things, but they are not great when it feels like all the cards have been thrown into the air. My hope for those leaders is that they have strong teams around them, and that they have the self-awareness to know that this isn't their time to shine.
AFI: Is there any additional advice that you could give to these leaders who are flailing or need additional support?
Rebecca Ryan: If you’re a leader who's feeling a giant sense of “holy cow,” that's perfectly fine. Just take stock of where you can be effective. Who in your organization is better at leading through times of challenge? It’s probably your fire or police chief because these are the folks who are trained to lead through a crisis. It's not a leadership failure if you're having an “oh crap” moment. Not all leaders are built for all things. But as a leader, you need to be able to delegate to those who are better suited.
AFI: As a city leader, you're likely following all the rules and checking everything off the list when it comes to responding to a crisis. But how do you spot those trip wires?
Rebecca Ryan: What most municipal leaders are doing is going to their emergency playbook. But even if you're following that playbook to the letter, the great question that leaders should be asking is “what are we missing?” And if you have trustworthy and courageous leaders around you, they're going to tell you what you're missing.
Also, if you can, rely on data. If you want to do this right, stop reading the news and start reading academic papers. For the COVID-19 crisis, I'm going back and rereading papers that were written after the SARS and MERS epidemics to see how the economies came back locally, regionally and nationally after those epidemics.
AFI: In looking at some of these academic papers, what are your predictions of how local government will change and how they'll operate a year from now?
Rebecca Ryan: I'm looking closely at how local governments came out of the great recession, and how long it took to come back to revenue parity from 2009 budgets. What’s different is that this time, a lot of communities don't have the same ability to cut as they did, and I don't see the same levels of relief that we saw in the past. My advice to local governments is to frame the conversation with your citizens as one about values.
When we ask people, “what could a future scenario look like?” most people, because they're afraid and we are in a time of crisis, say their visionary future zone is to get back to normal. From my perspective that is insufficient. Normal was already broken and it was inadequate. We have this opportunity to reflect on what matters to us.
AFI: I’d like to talk more about remote working and what that looks like in local government. How possible is a virtual government for more desk-centric positions?
Rebecca Ryan: It's been possible for a long time. Like in all things, the technology has been there, it's human behavior that is required to catch up. Now for some people, you can't separate the location and the job, I think we all understand that. But it's like local government is now catching up with the world corporate America has known for a long time. Distributed work is not only possible, in some cases it's desirable. Where I think it is desirable for local governments is for those hard to fill jobs that aren't place-based especially as we face shortages in key areas. You’ve got to untether those things at some point if you want the brightest and best in hard to fill roles.
AFI: Why can't we be more flexible in city government? Why can't we attract a new generation of city leaders and electeds that can remotely attend sessions?
Rebecca Ryan: If you want the very best Council, and you want citizens who can give testimony on certain things, the idea that they have to show up to a meeting in one location at a dedicated time doesn’t work. Instead, can they videotape their testimony and send that in? Don't we want some of the most engaged people who work at some of the highest levels within organizations, who because of their professional lives have to travel around the world? Why do we allow those outdated regulations to drive who is even able to run for an elected position?
AFI: To finish out, is there anything that you'd like to address? Anything that you could predict that would be helpful?
Rebecca Ryan: Don't waste what you've learned through this. Take good notes and do a good after-action review to be better prepared next time. Write it down for your future selves, or your successors, so that they have an insurance policy when it happens to them.
We've talked about having a values-based discussion about how we rethink local government and how we rethink the systems in our communities. I would just encourage you to ask yourselves these questions because I know that the human reflex is just to get it back to the way it was. But please ask yourself if back to normal is sufficient.