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Polco News & Knowledge

Tackling Government’s Wicked Challenges: From Budget Shortfalls to Climate Change

Smart solutions to any local government challenge can be found through the same reliable, systematic approach.

Governments are facing unprecedented levels of change with higher demands from residents. How do organizations do more with less and help solve these wicked challenges? In this webinar, experts discuss the necessary steps local governments can take to solve complex problems. 

Jonathan Wiersma, Polco Vice President of Marketing, discusses how data and engagement can help solve these problems. Then, panelists Andrew Sturmfels Assistant City Manager for the City of Healdsburg, California, and Elizabeth Goltry Wadle, Budget Officer City of Wichita, Kansas, discuss their Cities' challenges and the strategies they have taken to address these issues. 

This webinar is presented by Polco, in partnership with the National League of Cities (NLC)

Attendees in the chat mention affordable housing, homelessness, broadband, infrastructure, water hardness, the labor market, gun violence, staffing issues, and the political climate as some of the top challenges in their communities.

Three Steps to Tackle Wicked Challenges

Step 1. Track your data. Face the facts and listen to what your key data points are saying. 

Step 2. Engage your people. Involve the community for input and education. 

Step 3. Assess your options. Take realistic actions and the right fit. 

Wicked Challenges_Tackling Government’s Wicked Challenges_ From Budget Shortfalls to Climate Change

What are some of the wicked challenges that your government has had to face?

Goltry Wadle says budgeting has been a big challenge since she started with the City in 2006. There was the economic downturn of 2008, a major employer left the City and slowed growth, and then Covid came along. 

Andrew Sturmfels, Assistant City Manager for Healdsburg, CASturmfels says Healdsburg is known for wine tourism and Agra tourism. The pandemic shut down their tourism-driven economy and they had to make major budget cuts. But then tourism shot up quickly, and now they must know how to make the best decisions with that money. And as Healdsburg has become more popular, properties are more expensive, and there is an economic divide among groups. 

California is also prone to drought and fire. In 2019, the Kincade fire tore through Sonoma County. The entire City of Healdsburg was evacuated. It was a wake-up call about emergency preparedness planning and climate change mitigation. 

Why is community engagement important? 

Elizabeth Goltry Wadle-1Goltry Wadle says the government has a responsibility to hear from as many community members as possible. That was evident when 12 years ago, nobody showed up to a public meeting about the budget. Engagement must be intentional. She points out that ongoing surveys are a great way to gather input from residents before drastic events occur.

In Healdsburg, people know each other, and local gossip flows quickly. But even though people disagree, they still engage with each other over the breakfast table. The national mood of disagreeing agreeably has shifted, Sturmfels says. So getting input helps maintain relationships and the culture of the community. He says if you don’t give people an opportunity to speak up, people feel unheard and unvalued, which shifts the culture of the community. 

Having public input from the start helps people understand decisions— even if it’s not something they initially want. This also dissipates a lack of trust in the government. 

Vocal Minority_Tackling Government’s Wicked Challenges_ From Budget Shortfalls to Climate Change

How is your local government engaging residents? 

Goltry Wadle says Wichita started hosting social media town halls. They aim to meet people where they spend their time. The City has also run citizen surveys since 2006. They recently launched a budgeting simulator in 2019, which came in handy for the 2020 budget when there wasn’t much opportunity to engage with residents. This year, their community survey results were delivered in an online dashboard. Committed to transparency, the City shared the full dashboard with constituent groups. Wadle says they have created a culture of engagement such that it’s become an expectation from the community. 

Healdsburg saw a massive influx in revenue when tourism heated back up after the pandemic. Many community members had strong opinions about where the money should go. 

In the past, the City would run a simple community survey asking residents about their top budget priorities, But it was too high-level and non-specific. As they moved into their next cycle, they adopted Balancing Act's simulation tool to educate people about budget trade-offs. They started hearing from a wide variety of groups and made a huge effort to reach the under-heard Latino population. 

They discovered that the squeaky wheels were the only ones who voted for a particular issue. The majority of residents, over 90%, wanted certain programs restored and for the City to focus on housing and homelessness. The engagement effort allowed officials to frame community preferences in a bigger light. Sturmfels said it made conversations with the council very easy. 

“You’ve gotta be all in engaging your entire community,” Sturmfels said. “You gotta go deep.” 

He suggests doing everything: pop-ups, events, Spanish translations, door-to-door knocking, and multiple training sessions on the budgeting simulator. 

How can community data help cities prepare for economic downturns? 

Community data helped Wichita create what-if scenarios when thinking about the budget. When Covid came along, they were prepared to cut unnecessary services because they already knew what was a priority to their residents. And as those priorities have changed over time, the City has been very intentional in its service decisions. They are forecasting a deficit in 2025, so they are using data to prepare for potential changes. 

How can community data help cities prepare for natural disasters? 

Using Balancing Act’s budgeting simulation, Healdsburg discovered that more than 90% of residents favored reinstating an emergency manager position that was cut during that pandemic. 

The City is also developing its first climate mobilization strategy that focuses on climate and water resiliency. They have an engaged group of residents who care about climate, many of whom lost their homes during the Kincade fire. They are using these groups to help gather more community data and educate the public. Getting that data has been invaluable in putting together that plan. 

Resident voice_Tackling Government’s Wicked Challenges_ From Budget Shortfalls to Climate Change

What advice do you have for governments wanting to tackle their wicked challenges? 

Wadle says local governments should always work to understand resident priorities, throughout the ups and the downs. When engagement and prioritization are already in place, your organization can be prepared for crisis events whenever they may happen.

"It's really just born out of necessity," Wadle said. "What is true about a wicked challenge is that it's unavoidable ... It's a matter of leadership knowing that it is easier to tackle it sooner rather than later...If you have the data on hand first, that's a great place to start."

Sturmfels says you need to have an honest discussion with leadership about how much they value community engagement and what lengths they are willing to go for it.

"To get the really deep community engagement that results in a representative sample—it's a lot ... And it's a lot of non-traditional work,” he said. “It's not work that government employees in cities and counties are always used to doing.”

He adds that community partnerships are incredibly useful for engagement. He also says it’s important to know what questions you want to ask upfront. Be clear and have that internal discussion about what data you’re trying to get and develop your plan off that.

Learn more about tools to tackle wicked challenges

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