Let’s Go Back to 1967

Memories are an unreliable guide to the past.  I know this because my memory has betrayed me many times and because I see and hear others make the same mistakes.  My wife and children, for example, have many strange recollections about their past, and my role in it, that I do not believe are supported by credible evidence.  A recent conversation with a local resident also helped confirm my convictions about the convenience of our memories.

I had not given much thought to 1967 before my conversation where the person with whom I was speaking claimed Oregon was a better place in that year and wouldn’t it be great if we could simply return to that time.  I didn’t respond to his claim, but I thought about it and concluded either his memory was bad or his personal experience was unique.  I think a good case can be made that Oregon is a better place in 2011 than it was in 1967.

The most obvious improvement is that you can expect to live about eight years longer now than you could in 1967.  Better medical care, fewer traffic deaths, reduced smoking, and generally better safety have all played a role in extending our lives and reducing the number of tragedies we experience.  My friend might point out that there were only 61 homicides in Oregon in 1967, while we had 85 in 2009; but all this proves is that the murder rate today is far lower than it was then.  Oregon’s population was less than two million in 1967 and is nearly four million today; so you stood a much greater chance of being murdered then than you do now. 

It would be easy to assume that Oregon was more unspoiled when the population was so much smaller, but that assumption would be wrong.  The Willamette River was heavily polluted and virtually unavailable for recreational purposes through much of the Valley.  It was in 1967, in fact, that Governor Tom McCall led a campaign to restore the river and create the greenways we enjoy today.  Wigwam burners, field burning and other air pollutants made Oregon’s air difficult to breathe in many locations.  Oregon had fewer parks or other recreational amenities and Portland, the state’s only real city at the time, was a blighted, unattractive place.

I think life in Oregon was simpler in 1967 than it is today.  People had fewer choices about where and how to shop, recreate, seek medical care, work, and live.  Oregon incomes were higher relative to the national average in 1967, but the overall standard of living was much lower.  Oregon’s unemployment rate has bounced around since records have been kept, and the oldest data I could easily confirm through Bureau of Labor Statistics was in 1976.  That year the rate stood at 12 percent, and it is currently listed at 10.5 percent.

Statistics never tell the full story, and the very personal calculation of happiness or contentedness is difficult to measure collectively.  Nonetheless, I do not think you can pick any time in the past and make a legitimate claim that conditions were better for more people in Oregon than they are today.  The Vietnam War, race riots, campus unrest, the Cold War, and crime dominated the news in 1967 and certainly affected perceptions of security and happiness.  My final thought is that regardless of whether it was better or not in 1967, our obligation is to influence the future rather than try to recreate the past.  I believe we can make 2012 better than 2011, and that’s where we should be focusing our attention.

What I Learned

Paper does not generally last long in my office.  I dislike clutter and being unable to find things when I need them; so I ruthlessly throw out papers that are not of any obvious or immediate use to me.  I have, however, managed to keep my official “ICMA Management Practices Assessment Applied Knowledge Assessment Participant Feedback Report” since October 18, 1999.  The Assessment was the first step toward what would eventually become the International City-County Management Association’s (ICMA) Credentialed Manager Program, and I was pleased to be one of the first 75 or so managers to achieve that designation in 2002.

Credentialed Managers are ICMA members who have successfully completed a knowledge assessment (test); attained a specified level of education; and worked in the field for a designated number of years.  Credentialed managers are also pledged to complete 40 hours of continuing education every year; a requirement that I consider important, but nonetheless irritating.  While I usually like the coursework, I have trouble documenting what I learned.  I was so bad last year that I received the following admonition on my report:

Dear Wes:

            I have recommended approval of your extremely spare annual ICMA-CAB Report. Clearly, the activities that are briefly noted would have required considerably more than the minimum hours of developmental activities required. However, I recommend that, in your next annual report, considerably more needs to be explained about what you have learned from activities reported. An example is attached.

I believe I am now on probation after having been warned that my last report was “extremely spare.”  I remember responding that I would do better this year; so I dutifully read the good example provided by ICMA and recently made several uninspired attempts to convey what I learned from my continuing education efforts in 2010.  I need to confess at this point to an irrational distaste for the “model” report favored by ICMA.  I’m sure it’s just another symptom of the aging process and my personal transition toward becoming a grumpy old man(ager).

This year’s report is as follows:

I attended the annual Oregon City-County Management Association Summer Conference in Bend and sat through approximately eight hours of sessions focusing on public outreach, civic engagement, the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS), and a few things I can’t remember.  A good manager would have written down everything or at least remembered more.

I attended the League of Oregon Cities Annual Conference in Eugene and again attended at least ten hours of training on subjects such as improving facilitation skills, economic development, and ethics.  I made presentations at two of the sessions. 

I attended the annual ICMA Conference in San Jose and, as I invariably do, participated in 2 ICMA University Courses totaling 8 hours.  I attended various subject matter sessions involving about another 16 hours.  I focused on performance measurement, the Baldridge Model for organizational improvement, and “Leadership Resilience in Unimaginable Times,” (personal development) to name a few.

The more important question ICMA poses to its prospective credentialed managers is, “What difference did the training make?”  I do not think there is an easy answer to this question.  I believe I improved my facilitation skills and came away from several of the courses with some new ideas about how to present issues to policy makers and the public.  Most people are aware of Albany’s efforts to use performance measurement as a tool to drive improvement, and I know I picked up ideas from the Baldridge training and other sessions at the ICMA conference.  I can’t say that the training directly produced the several awards we received last year for good governance and transparency, but I believe it helped.

I think the most important benefit of ongoing training is that it requires individuals to question or compare their current way of doing things to a different model.  This process most often leads to small changes and occasionally can produce a dramatic improvement.  I don’t recall any of the latter this year.

In addition to the training in policy facilitation, performance measurement, and personal development, I completed some required emergency management training (8 hours) and recently participated in a day-long symposium on community development.  Despite some reservations, I take my commitment to the credentialing program seriously and believe it has helped make me a better manager over the past decade.  The only remaining question is whether this year’s report (741 words) will pass muster.

Do Awards Matter?

Hidden behind a treasured needlework picture in my office is a modernistic pile of cubes that was given to me as an award for service on a statewide land use panel in 2007.  Much as I would like to think that my outstanding effort or attributes led to the award, I honestly don’t think I did much to earn my cubes.  Sometimes people receive recognition for showing up or being in the right place at the right time.  Anyone who has competed for medals or trophies over a period of time has probably received an award for finishing second or third in a competition where only two or three people participated.  As the saying goes, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

It would be easy to become cynical about awards when we are aware of a number of examples where they really don’t mean much.  I sometimes drift in that direction until I see someone who has truly earned recognition receive a well-deserved honor.  Last year, for example, our former Assistant Finance Director John Stahl was honored by the Oregon Chapter of the Government Finance Officers’ Association for distinguished service throughout his career.  The awards and recognition the City’s website Dashboard has received in recent months are also a worthy tribute to some important and unique work by Bob Woods and Matt Harrington.

I think awards should be given to honor achievement and inspire emulation.  When a person or organization does something that could be of great value to others if they knew more about it, an award is a good way to spread the word.  Awards can also help provide assurance of competence and integrity in areas where public trust is important.  The annual awards our Finance Department earns for our financial reports and budget presentation, as well as the recently earned accreditation of our Public Works Department tell the citizens of Albany that our organization is meeting or exceeding a standard of performance excellence.

The most important award I’ve received in the past year proudly adorns the window sill on the Broadalbin side of my office.  My plastic trophy is about six inches high and bears the inscription “ICMA 5K Race 5th Place Male.”  A few of my “friends” have asked how many people participated in the race, and I can safely say there were at least 75 people.  I can also brag that I was clearly the oldest trophy winner.  I have won other races, but this 5th place finish meant a lot because I decided a year or two ago that I was no longer capable of being a competitive runner.  The little piece of plastic reminds me that I can.

Awards matter for a variety of good reasons; and, while they shouldn’t become an end in themselves, I appreciate all the outstanding work by City of Albany employees that regularly receives recognition from local, state, and national organizations.