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Searching for Fiscal Sustainability: A Collaborative Research Effort, Part 2

This article is part two of two. To read part one, click on the link in the Related Articles box below. To comment on this article, click on the Post A Comment link below.

Rich Callahan, Mark Pisano

Process for Testing the Findings
The preliminary findings where discussed in detail with experienced city managers, local elected officials, and researchers from the California Research Bureau and the Public Policy Institute of California. The data and observations we gathered from the four case studies and our discussion with a panel of reviewers reinforced the validity of the premises of the turbulent fiscal context for local government.

The facilitated discussion with both career and elected officials that included collectively nearly 200 years of experience as city and county managers with Ron Bates, Keith Comrie, Jim Starbird, and Greg Devereaux, as well a former elected councilwomen, Bev Perry. Additionally, two researchers who have focused on applied local government research while directing the State of California’s Research Bureau, including the founding director, Dean Miscyznski, and current director, Brian Sala, brought considerable knowledge to the discussion.

The facilitator emphasized fast moving discussion, across all of the participants. The practitioners’ discussion focused on the findings, across a few targeted questions. The time frame of two hours in the morning, a lunch sponsored by the LA Chapter of ASPA and University of Southern California’s Bedrosian Center for Governance for practitioners from throughout the county, and two hours in the afternoon, provided a great opportunity for extended discussion with reflective practitioners. The reality of being too busy doing the work to reflect on insights of years of hard earned experiences was addressed by this format, and by the opportunity to for focused discussions with equally experienced professionals.

The discussions raised as set of questions including that being entrepreneurial can be as much about saving money as making money and that the time you do not want to be in discussions with unions is when you are already in trouble—you need to develop trust earlier. Also the need to develop best practices for those involved in making decision on fiscal sustainability, that address the questions of what are the incentives for elected officials to think in the long-term solutions and the importance of not letting people go out and make side deals and how to develop fiscal fluency in decision making. Most significantly, the lunch panel convener and director of the Bedrosian Center, Dan Mazmanian raised the central questions of to what extent are these findings generalizable and how do we go to scale on these?

Based on the research of the four case studies and the discussion with experienced practitioners, the research team found two important features: one, the structural causes and consequences of the current fiscal challenge in several way and, two the specific leadership strategies for overcoming some of the structural constraints. A more detailed set of each of the case studies is scheduled for publication this spring by the National Civic Review.

Connecting with Other Researchers
The research will extend beyond the initial four case studies through additional finding from the Haynes Foundation. Two additional research questions will be addressed in the upcoming year are: What are the distinctions between successful jurisdiction and those that are in bankruptcy or are on the precipice? And how can staff and elected leadership better understand what critical financial information is needed for effective problem solving and what are the key questions to ask?

In addition to the funded research in Southern California, we are looking to connect with researchers looking at fiscal sustainability and leadership in other regions of the country and other levels of government, as well as internationally. Extending the range of cases offers an opportunity to test the current findings, develop additional findings on how public sector leaders develop strategy for fiscal sustainability, and contribute to ASPA’s mission of professionalism in public service.

Rich Callahan is an associate professor at the University of San Francisco. Email: [email protected]

Mark Pisano is a Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California Bedrosian Center on Governance. Email: [email protected]

We would like to gratefully acknowledge and express our appreciation for the support of The John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, along with the partnership with our valued research colleagues: Yan Tang the research director for the USC Bedrosian Center, Gloria Rubio-Cortes the president of the National Civic League, and Mike McGrath the editor of the National Civic Review.

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