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Progress, Albeit Small, is Progress Nonetheless

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ian Coyle
December 4, 2023

Local government often finds itself the subject of measurement. We have performance-based budgeting. Performance measurement systems for our operations. The measuring of progress, performance and actions contrasted against strategic plans and reviewed on a regular basis to chart advancements on policy initiatives. We also have to take into account the transparency through which we operate, ever mindful of the lens of the residents and how our services are rendered in the public eye. These measurement-related pursuits are of course helpful steps to take, especially in light of the mountains of programs and projects that local governments undertake on an annual basis. However, are we careful to not overlook the small steps taken towards achieving our goals?

I talk a lot about small progress points when I work with my staff and my coaching and consulting clients. In county government, we are advancing major initiatives. These can include polarities from sowing the seeds of economic development to fighting chronic homelessness. Sometimes there is inertia and, seemingly, a lack of movement for years or even decades on a weighty issue in the public sector realm. Or perhaps it’s a personal issue or career concern with a coaching client of mine. An addictive behavior, a personal loss to overcome, a setback in one’s career. Especially with progress that is centered on a rebound or a rest, you just need to start. Kick off. Press forward with one step. Read 1 page. Heck, read one sentence of one page. Take that one action daily towards your personal or professional goals.

The question to ask yourself is: What steps did you take today towards a goal that you yourself are working on personally or one on behalf of your local government? This is where people get side-tracked. Due to the immensity of the challenge, one can easily get overwhelmed. Take county government and pick a weighty, thorny challenge, say for example poverty, and if you want to be more specific—the issue of childhood poverty. Indeed, the issue of poverty in our communities can seem staggeringly impenetrable. The cycle of poverty has a multitude of factors (employment, housing, transportation, mental health, addiction to name a few) at play that are causing people, and thus children, to be in impoverished living situations. Some of these are in the locus of county involvement or control and others are not. However, regardless of the service program involved, we see this issue present itself in county government operations with social services interactions, mental health reports, public health responses, system activity in family court and housing department assistance programs. Our staff see the outcomes of poverty. Teachers in our schools do and our non-profit partners as well.

There is a high child poverty rate where we live. This remains a challenge that many of our staff are focused on, and it can seem at times that progress is stalled or that positive outcomes are not obtainable. We are just one cog in a multi-pronged wheel that rolls, sometimes regardless of what we do or don’t do. We ask ourselves: Are we not doing enough? Maybe it seems that way at times, especially on days where you get down. Are we doing something? Yes, absolutely. Therefore, focus on the momentum and action, regardless of how small, inconsequential or trivial that it may seem today. In Upstate New York, where I live, we like to make analogies to our lovely weather. You might call this small-step-builds-momentum technique, the snowball effect. Roll these forward from day to day and week to week, and the positive, progress-oriented forces can multiply and build up accordingly. Pick up one case file for one family that is living in poverty. Look at it with fresh eyes. Make a call. Conduct a targeted outreach effort with the family. Make a referral for an employment opportunity for the out-of-work mother or father. Or tackle one element (e.g. transportation) of one segment of the multi-faceted list of poverty-inducing challenge areas and begin there. As a local government worker, you are a difference maker and sometimes it just starts with one small step and one mini-milestone achieved. Always remember that progress, even in small increments, is progress nonetheless.

Author: Dr. Ian M. Coyle, ICMA-CM is the County Administrator in Livingston County, NY. He has worked in government for 20 years and has taught MPA courses for a variety of universities. Through his consultancy, Pracademic Partners, Ian also provides assistance to other organizations in four key areas: executive search; management consulting; executive/leadership coaching; and teaching, training & professional development experiences. Email: [email protected]

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