The Misconception of Austerity Mindset in Local Government

Editor’s note: GovLoop interviewed current and former government employees about limiting beliefs they’ve seen throughout their careers in public service. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation in the words of one interviewee. 

Dan Hoffman, City Manager for Winchester, Virginia

Dan Hoffman is the City Manager for Winchester, Virginia. He has a background in HR and management, with a specialty in using technology to positively impact change. His skill sets complement the strengths of Winchester’s deputy city manager, who also serves as the chief financial officer.

Limiting belief: Jurisdictions’ budgets can support deep cuts, therefore they should operate with an austerity mindset.

The reality is: When we sit down with people and actually go through our budget, especially a new elected official, they’ll see there’s not much there to cut. You might find a little bit here, a little bit there, but you’re not going to find double-digit cuts that we might have found back in 2008. A lot of jurisdictions are not in great financial shape. Winchester’s very fortunate, but we’re going to have to be creative about our revenue sources and not get too over-reliant on federal assistance and CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act] money going into 2021.

Thinking small isn’t sustainable: I have always been a fan of the old phrase that austerity is the mother of invention, bootstrapping, the lean startup methodology. That’s basically everything I espoused when I was a chief innovation officer: Fail fast, start small, iterate. That’s still very true. But the “thinking small” mindset works only until you scale up. At some point, to see a benefit, it has to go to scale. That requires an investment. They can’t stay small forever and still reap the reward.

What’s at stake: If you take that austerity budget mindset that says, “We don’t have it, and I’m not going to ask because the council may be mad at me,” you’re going to have the status quo. If you’re not making the case for the return on that investment, shame on you as a city manager. The city council might tell me no, but when you’re a city manager, the worst thing you can do is not have the conversation.

Talking points to cut through red tape

Engaging the public: Many jurisdictions have citizen academies. Ours is called INSIGHT Citizen’s Academy. If someone doesn’t believe that there is a lean budget, or if they feel like there’s waste somewhere, come talk to us. Sit down with us. We’re happy to sit down with any resident and talk to them about the budget. Just come with an open mind and come with constructive questions. We’ve converted a lot of naysayers, through things like INSIGHT Citizen’s Academy, who were outspoken critics of ours in the past.

Talking with elected officials: The benefit we have with elected officials is that I think the vast majority of them take the time to sit down and understand. They may not like it. They’ll be vocal about it, but at least they’ll understand why. I think as a city manager, that’s the goal. I’m not always going to be able to say yes to an elected official or to one of my directors, but at least I need them to feel heard and ensure they understand why I’ve made that decision. From there, you can have an informed, professional, adult conversation. If you don’t even try to make the case, or if you don’t try to listen, there’s not going to be a lot of trust, and they’ll believe that there is waste or that you haven’t fully thought through all of the different unseen options.

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s new guide, “Agency of the Future: Common Misconceptions Holding You Back and How to Break Free.” Download the full guide here.

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