From Jim Oliver’s Address to People for Portsmouth

[Mr. James (“Jim”) B. Oliver, Jr., has graciously allowed us to post his remarks delivered at the March 24, 2016, meeting of People for Portsmouth. Among his many accomplishments, he served as Interim City Manager of Portsmouth from June 2004 until July 2007. The following biographical information is posted on the web site of the Hampton Roads Center for Civic Engagement, a public-spirited organization he helped to establish.

“Jim Oliver is the Emeritus Chairman of the Board for the Hampton Roads Center for Civic Engagement extending his long career in communications, senior government management and civic leadership. He received a B.A. in Communication Arts from the University of Notre Dame, a master’s degree in Urban Services from Old Dominion University and attended Columbia University on a CBS Fellowship in Government. His early career was as a reporter and correspondent for newspaper, radio and television companies.

“Mr. Oliver started in government as a Public Information Officer for the City of Norfolk. He became Assistant City Manager for the City of Norfolk, County Administrator for James City County, City Manager for the City of Norfolk and later, the City of Portsmouth and as an interim City Manager of the City of Hampton. He was a mediator for the Virginia Commission of Local Government, a consultant for the National Academy of Public Administration, a Coordinator of ‘Crossroads’ for the College of William & Mary and Vice President of CI Travel. He serves on multiple civic boards and is active in his church. Jim was born and raised in Norfolk.”]

Now that you know a few things about me, I’d like to set a larger context regarding American public governance and administration.

It’s the Bible that says loudly that life is a lot about irony and paradox. That phrase is a good way to think about today’s public sector writ large.

The reality is Portsmouth is not alone with many of the dilemmas its local government is facing. As citizens I hope you know and understand that.

The rest of the news about Portsmouth I would say is in your hands.

A German politician said in the mid-1800s, “Politics is the art of the possible.” He meant citizens need to create space and opportunity to talk civilly and to talk out differences. Creating space and opportunities takes time and good faith. That can be a paradox in a fiery atmosphere.

There are many, many contemporary leadership challenges in local government today. In simple terms localities are caught in a struggle to balance or connect what is “politically acceptable” with what is “administratively sustainable — or, said even more simply, connect politics with administration.

The difficulty becomes more obvious when we look at the trends which underpin each of these factors today — administration and politics.

And to be even more specific, the roles of the city manager and other professionals in the local systems are under enormous pressure. Think about it — if the historic, intended role of the manager is to facilitate community and enable democracy, then how does one go about building community and supporting democratic values in today’s polarized environments?

Traditionally, city managers have tried to help build community by facilitating partnerships among sectors, groups and individuals. Managers have looked for creative ways to support the traditional democratic values of inclusion, accountability and transparency with the professional values of efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery, trying to build a total sense of community.

In lots of communities today, both sides of the equation have been hyped, and we see role confusion among professionals and elected officials.

Let’s look first at administration and four forces that are driving the modernization of administration. Specifically, they are:

  • the communication revolution
  • the transportation revolution
  • the organization revolution, and
  • the economic revolution

The first two set of forces — communications and transportation — are transmitting ideas, information, images and money across continents that are hastening the boundary-crossing flow of people and goods.

The third set of forces — the organization revolution — has shifted the flow of authority, influence, and power beyond traditional boundaries and the fourth — the economic revolution — has re-directed the flow of goods, services, capital and ownership.

The impact of these four forces together has been to create more administrative homogeneity or sameness — with the emphasis on hard data and cause and effect principles. We see it in the push for quality control and cheaper costs and less variation in products or services. These trends push toward standardization and centralization.

These trends challenge the politics of identity, which prefers the spontaneous, unique and experiential. The politics of identity prefers variation and differentiation. We see this clearly in the efforts of cities to brand themselves as different from other cities in marketing campaigns, or as neighborhoods who want to be different.

Yes, we hear lots of storytelling that speaks to the mind by reaching for the heart. The most powerful stories touch one’s identity — who we were, who we are and what we can become.

The quest for identity sometimes is dominated by intuition and emotion and one’s self-regard for oneself versus the notions of community building or that we are all in this together.

Again, there is irony and paradox. The city manager and administrative staff work in the realm of data and analysis with serious concerns for what is administratively sustainable — that is — what is implementable on a long-term basis and what is fair to the larger population, while elected officials are working to develop what is politically acceptable within the emotional context of community identities.

The question in Portsmouth, as well as elsewhere, is “can we connect the two” — data and emotion. Can we close this widening gap?

It seems to me this context gives us four leadership challenges:

  • the roles and responsibilities for professionals in the governance system
  • how to synchronize government jurisdictions and other structures of authority with the problems to be solved. (Here we are talking about networks and collaboration with non-governmental players.)
  • how do we integrate citizens (you) and other forms of engagement with traditional government structures and processes?
  • the search for a new normal. As citizen leaders, can you personally get beyond technical change and help Portsmouth face adaptive change — how you think, believe and behave? Or are you so entrenched in your old ways of thinking that you are paralyzed and will remain angry?

The first challenge, which involves the role of professionals, is tricky. How can professionals truly engage citizens and groups and avoid sensitive political alignments or administrative compromises? That can be more than tough in this climate of high political identity.

Some call this role of the manager and professionals “bridge building”. For the manager it usually involves more time spent with city council and community leaders and less time with public employees. But this can be tricky, too, especially for those professionals below the city manager level.

Can we train and lead city employees to bridge the modernization and political gap? Said another way, can we build enough community trust into the system to empower the  “discretionary effort” of professionals — that part of their person that touches the genius and creative sides of who they are. We all know how to work to the minimum, to stay safe. But in today’s world, the problems are so complex, but so are the politics. How can we empower city employees in Portsmouth is an important question. A question that is often overlooked.

Can we manage the ideological politics that have only one, uncompromising answer? Do hardline interpretations of right and wrong work at the local level of government, which is mostly about services and security?

The second leadership challenge has special meaning for Hampton Roads, a region of seventeen independent local governments. It’s the challenge of structures and values.  How do we synchronize government jurisdictions with other structures of authority? With other cities? With non-profits? With churches? With others who are part of today’s decision environment? There have been successful efforts in Portsmouth with projects like Oasis and Habitat for Humanity.

Classic cases here involve policy issues that go beyond governmental boundaries, such as economic development, transportation, the environment and land use. These are problem areas which value networks and collaborative relationships and skills.

The emerging world of networks involves new management skills which government people sometimes don’t understand. It’s different from managing within a hierarchy.  Collaboration is a key component as well as identifying the group’s source of authority.  Values can become important in new ways. Sometimes values of faith conflict with more traditional government values.

How does a specific collaboration deal with the values of representation, social equity and individual rights, as well as efficiency? These are important issues.

The third leadership challenge concerns the processes of engagement. How do we integrate citizens and other forms of engagement with traditional local government structures and processes? Again, this is tricky stuff. It’s not just listening to everyone politely.  It’s deeper.  Some call it collaborative engagement. It’s merging multiple sources of information and communication from community organizations with traditional governing structures and processes. I am sure People for Portsmouth have talked about this some as you have looked at your published list of failures and accomplishments.

How do you connect the issue-specific and passionate views of advocates, or the players in a network context in which there are different missions, motivations, and identities, with the totality of the City of Portsmouth?

The fourth challenge is about adaptive change and whether large groups of citizens can learn to talk with each other civilly about very difficult subjects. This challenge involves deep, deep learning, the kind that adults find very difficult.

These challenges have been magnified with the emergence of massive social media and identity politics.

Put into the context of bridging the gap, the issue with citizen engagement, whether electronic or in person, is how the communication transaction affects either political acceptability or administrative sustainability. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, is the question of whether the engagement serves as a bridge across what can be a paradox.

As we consider all of these trends and forces together, we can see that we are moving away from the classic metaphor of the leader as military commander, or strong mayor, and toward the image of leader — to include mayor, manager and department head — as symphony leader.

Each of us has an instrument or two to play. Many are unique. How can we make harmony together? Harmony is the art and craft of blending different voices and instruments into rich agreement and complimentary notes. It is hard, hard work and takes serious practice.

Think of how hard symphony orchestras practice to get strings, voices and metal instruments to play together.

Within each of these leadership challenges is paradox. Adding new, nongovernmental players to decision-making can challenge traditional American democratic values. As communities, are we capable of engagement processes that preserve administrative sustainability with what is politically acceptable? This is in all likelihood new, difficult learning for most of us. Few of us do really well under stress.

Are we capable of lowering the stress levels so that folks stop yelling at each other and lower their voices and the anger that goes with those voices?

Hopefully, city managers can be helpful with this learning but so can civic leaders who understand.

I really like the invitation the People for Portsmouth has extended to the Martin Luther King Committee to jointly interview candidates for city council. I would hope invitations like that could be expanded to other groups and enlarge the conversation beyond elections. A coalition of citizen groups could be powerful in developing a citizen vision for Portsmouth.

Hopefully, this larger context lets us think about Portsmouth in realistic ways.

It’s a special place, with lots of positives. So much of Portsmouth is physically pleasant: the water, the patterns of development, the architecture, the green and open spaces, the trees. Portsmouth already has what many cities look for: a sense of place.

Its institutions are historic and renown and part of the identity of our region. It is the host of many good jobs.

It is also on the verge of large economic success. I am told Portsmouth is positioned today, as never before, to succeed in maritime economics. It already has in place all the tools for maritime success going forward. It is virtually unique in positioning on the East Coast.

Portsmouth is also positioned to provide downtown functions for the intense growth that is projected for Suffolk and Western Tidewater. Population projections say Western Tidewater will grow by 400,000 new people in the next twenty to thirty years. Good leadership in Portsmouth should be able to aid and benefit from that development.

In case you have forgotten, Portsmouth was the prime city of Hampton Roads in the mid-nineteenth century. I think there is another regional truism we need to keep in mind.

The region needs all of its localities to help with economic success. It is very hard for the region to outperform weak partners.

Again, we run into paradox. While there is abundant good news about Portsmouth, the city has challenges, some of its own making.

Its economic stratification is difficult. Its population lags in salaries, high school graduation rates and is tied for first in the number of single parent families. Portsmouth has the highest percent of persons age 25 and older without a high school diploma, and the city has a very high teen pregnancy rate per 1,000 female teens.

The city is second highest in the region as a percentage of all non-marital birthrates.

These are deep challenges, which require highly skilled leadership and management, especially at the city government level.

These issues are also challenges for you, the citizen leadership.

And I fully realize many city conversations today are in rough and stormy seas.

But let’s focus on the positive: the geography and history that are in place; the maritime, simulation and bio-medical opportunities that are here already; and the potential for Portsmouth to be the downtown of Western Tidewater.

And let’s start with the principle that everyone in this room is going to bring their best self to these opportunities, discussions and leadership efforts.

As part of our formula, can you concentrate on the positives, reward good suggestions and rule out the negative?

The paradoxes of modernization and the politics of identity can be helped by each of you, if you start by understanding them yourselves. So often, we skip the personal learning part for ourselves and just weigh in with our strong opinions when we run into a city council person, mayor or manager on the street.

Would it be possible for the People for Portsmouth to undertake a citizen engagement process that attempts to tie the opportunities to the challenges and create a vision for city residents? Are there other citizens groups who could help the People for Portsmouth lead?

Could the People for Portsmouth catch citizens and city officials doing the right thing and say so to each other?  Perhaps you could develop a list for your Facebook page that cites examples of city folks who have done the “right thing”.

Sometimes “waves” are hard to get going at the baseball or football games, but once they get in sync, it’s a lot of fun! Can folks find regular fun in Portsmouth? And can each of you help personally?

I have talked with a lot of people in preparing this talk, and I am surprised at how much agreement there is about the city’s possibilities for success in the future.

One of my questions for you is — can People For Portsmouth bring back a modern version of the public commons, a regular place where people gather and come together to hold conversations about all aspects of Portsmouth?  A place where people are civil, and citizens can get accurate and timely information.

If this becomes possible, Portsmouth is well positioned to succeed bigtime for its kids and grandkids — and for the memories of Mom, and Dad and the grandparents.

The personal question I leave is how can you — each of you — be your best selves going forward?


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