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ICMA Conference 2015: All About the Partnerships

by Timothy Tiernan on October 6, 2015
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  A bustling scene at the eCivis booth at ICMA 2015.

Did you get a chance to attend ICMA's 101st conference in Seattle last week? Fortunately, I was able to catch some keynote speeches and sessions by virtually attending the conference from my desk in Pasadena, CA. The final keynote speech, which came from the world of improv of all places, inspired this blog post.

There's a saying in improv: Bring a brick, not a cathedral. That is, the spirit of collaboration—so crucial to actors on a stage working without a script—is a matter of contributions by many to build a scene. In terms of translating this idea to local government projects, that "scene" might well be a brainstorming session to figure out how to revitalize a blighted corner of the community, to bring in alternative funding for your municipality, to draw millennials to your town.

The key is to say "Yes, and" to ideas, eliminating the "No, but" tendency that can quash creativity in the room as you elbow to win. This was the heart of the final keynote speech at this year's ICMA conference, delivered by Kelly Leonard, Executive Vice President of Second City (where the likes of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Steve Carrel got their start) and co-author of Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration: Lessons From The Second City. I found the link between improv and business and local government invaluable.

Saying "Yes, and" doesn't mean we should act on bad ideas. What it means is that, at worst, we drop some ideas later and move on to build something different. The key is that the actors (or board members, or whoever you are in whatever industry) continue to affirm and build together, allowing ideas to be generated in a kind of creative safe space. As I try to be mindful of this instinct in the office, I admit I need a meditative focus to subdue this "no" instinct.

Saying Yes to Partnerships

Leonard's keynote speech on the final conference day tied in nicely with the educational panels I had attended on previous days. Public-private partnerships (PPP) require adaptiveness and skilled negotiation, and this was a common theme of "Reenergizing Neighborhoods: From Now to Wow," where panelists discussed how tax increment financing (TIF), for instance, has helped revitalize city centers; how partnerships among the business sector, nonprofits, and local government, supplemented by a Strategic Investment Zone (SIZ) grant, would allow the City of Temple, Texas (pop. 66,102) to revitalize a blighted theater; and how a developer was able to revamp a dillapidated corner in Cincinnati to attract millennials and increase property values.

It was not just the private investment that added to the value, but it was [also] the partnership that did so.

- Dr. Robert Bland, Endowed Professor in Local Government, University of North Texas

As panelist and University of North Texas professor Dr. Robert Bland concluded from his study on TIF partnerships: “It was not just the private investment that added to the value, but it was [also] the partnership that did so.” 

A Multi-Sector Approach to Homelessness

At another panel, “Our Role in Ensuring the Equal Rights and Social Inclusion of Marginalized Groups,” Sharon D. Subadan, MPS, discussed how, as Assistant County Administrator in Hillsborough County, Florida (pop. 1.3 million), she found that the county had a chronic homeless issue that was not being adequately addressed. In response, the county took a "multi-sector collaborative approach" to dealing with the homeless issue in the Tampa Bay area. 

What we decided as a community was [that] homelessness is not a government problem; [it's] a community problem ... that requires a community response.

- Sharon D. Subadan, MPS, Assistant City Manager, County of Hillsborough, Florida

Here's what that approach looked like: The county reached out to the private sector, the nonprofit sector, the faith-based community, and other governmental partners (including other cities, the state, and HUD and Veteran Affairs) to share information and ensure that no entities were duplicating efforts, and to identify the organizations doing the best work. The county helped reform its homeless coalition by creating new by-laws and governing rules, establishing a new board that included city leadership to help the coalition focus on permanent and permanent supportive housing efforts, and spearheading an effort to address veteran homelessness (under the traditional, strict HUD definition of homelessness, the county found that 313 of the 1,931 homeless, or 16 percent, were veterans).

"What we decided as a community was [that] homelessness is not a government problem; [it's] a community problem ... that requires a community response," said Subadan. In the third aspect of effort, the county—through federal assistance, collaboration with landlords, and other partners in what was dubbed Operation: Reveille—helped veterans enter permanent supportive housing. A local furniture store even furnished all 50 units with brand new furniture. The homeless veterans moved in on Veterans Day.

5 Things to Take Away

The inspiring stories are so numerous that it's hard to stop typing. I'll end with what Kelly Leonard ended on: takeaways for leaders, simple points that go a long way in our complex work lives:

  1. Don’t check texts or emails when someone else is talking.
  2. Try to eliminate the word “no” from your vocab for just one day.
  3. Say “we” rather than “I” whenever possible.
  4. When you’re wrong, acknowledge it, say you’re sorry, and move on.
  5. Be on time, be curious, be an improviser.

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Topics: Conferences