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Public Administrators Must Promote Understanding and Acceptance Among People

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

By James Bourey
June 13, 2022

As a long time city and county manager, I have always felt that the diversity of the staff is a strength for any organization. This is not only true for a diversity of ethnicity, race and gender, but also a diversity in points of view. Similarly, the diversity of the United States is a valuable asset. It is clear that the country has an ever increasing amount of diversity. Yet, the differences in the perspectives of people in this country are increasingly a source of conflict and division. A level of divisiveness over differing points of view has led to a high level of animus and polarization. This is reflected in the highly divergent political viewpoints and conflicts in everyday life, which sow seeds of violence. 

Observers may debate about the causes of this great division among people. Some might claim it is because we come from such varied backgrounds. Others might claim that the operation of social media and partisan “news” broadcasts have dramatically entrenched people’s viewpoints and ideology. Yet, some might argue that the growing socio-economic disparities contribute greatly to the divisions.

Whether it is some or all of the above or even other reasons, we clearly stand as a nation divided. While this should be deeply concerning to everyone, it must be especially concerning to public administrators. This divisiveness makes our jobs even more difficult than they already are. For the sake of the country, and to fully answer our call to public service, we must dedicate ourselves to bringing people together for collective positive action.

The “what”, and even the “why”, are certainly difficult, but even more challenging is figuring out how this divisiveness can be addressed. I believe that it must start with a collective dialog characterized by active listening that promotes an understanding among people. This can only occur if the dialog is free from polarizing ideology and political positions. We all must be facilitators of conversations that are truly characterized by the well-known, yet not commonly practiced, idea of seeking first to understand and then to be understood. Currently, most often our strongly held views close our minds to even hearing what others are saying, stripping away any hope of understanding another’s perspective. This comes from not only the constant reinforcement of our own ideas through social media and television, but also from the perceived threat that others’ life choices pose to our preferred lifestyle and views. The stereotypes of others that are promoted by many serve to reinforce our biases. It is futile to try and open people’s minds to a different viewpoint when they are closed to ideas that are in conflict with their own. What should be a dialog turns into who can out shout the other and drown out their views.

While the first step must be to understand others, the second must be to accept people for who and what they are and not attempt to remake them according to our image of what we all should be. Moreover, people need to understand and accept that our diversity is a strength and not a threat.

In addition to a lack of understanding and threat, it can be argued that another source of division among people emanates from their wish to gain the biggest piece of the pie which many believe is strictly limited in size. For them, that half full glass means that they must keep others from having what they want for themselves. We must demonstrate that we can grow that pie and there is enough abundance for everyone if we work together. Of course, that is a lofty goal. But without that recognition, we are doomed to have people always seeking to better themselves on the backs of others.

In some ways, this is reflective of the view had about competing with others for a city manager’s position. I swallowed the executive search firms line that it was less of a competition than to find the best fit for the organization and that was in everyone’s interest. Yes, I always did my level best to be the candidate the council selected, but I always tried to hold on to the belief that it needed to be about the best fit. If I was not the best fit for the position then there would be, and indeed was, a position more suitable for me.

Without a non-ideological dialog and reducing the threat others present, we will not get to the level of understanding and acceptance that will reverse what is now an ever growing divide in our country, steeped in conflict and stopped from moving forward constructively. Public administrators need to champion and lead this effort. We need to promote a dialog in our communities, both formal and informal, that is nonpartisan and non ideological that promotes understanding among our constituents. No group is better positioned to do this. It is in the interest of not only our profession, but our country. It is the first step to a more peaceful existence for us and the rest of the world.   

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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