From the Beacon, February 2023

Now that I’ve shared my retirement plans with our members and staff, I’ve started to reflect on my 31 years with the MMA — what I’ve seen, what has changed, and what has stayed the same.

First, it is breathtaking to see how much technology has transformed us, and made governing more complex, immediate and difficult.

Yes, technology has accelerated the modernization of municipal offices. Information access and sharing are so much easier, and communities have used these advances to streamline service delivery and implement unprecedented efficiencies. That is all great.

Yet with every improvement, residents and businesses have raised their expectations, and the demand for instant action and response has municipal officials and employees running full tilt on a treadmill that seems to up its speed with every passing year. Burnout is a key challenge, and stress management has become a leadership skill.

On top of this, the diminishment of local newspapers and mainstream news outlets, and the proliferation of social media usage, have combined to make it extraordinarily difficult to center a critical mass of community stakeholders around an agreed-upon set of facts. Consensus is harder to achieve, and incivility is on the rise. Spurred on by “remote engagement,” technology is being used by many who choose to stand on the outside edges of discourse and stir the pot without regard for the need for solution-based dialogue.

So, if governing is harder and the demand for services has increased several times over, how have our communities been able to succeed? How is it that cities and towns are doing more than ever, even with limited resources and added difficulty. I see two related (yet seemingly opposite) dynamics at work.

The first dynamic is a commitment to change.

During this time, cities and towns have professionalized their operations and expanded the capacity of their “daytime” governments to navigate complex regulations, new federal and state laws, major societal issues, and more. We have a record number of town and city managers and administrators. In the 44 communities with CEO mayors, those offices have been professionalized. Most of our communities disbanded their counties and replaced those archaic systems with councils of governments or regional collaborations to fit key needs. The few remaining counties have, for the most part, reoriented to be more responsive or capable as regional service administrators.

Today, municipal governments are more professional, collaborative, efficient, skillful and qualified than at any time in our state’s history. Most of that progress has occurred in the past three or four decades. And that progress has been driven by local leaders, not by dictates or mandates from above or outside. Change has been led from within, driven by the elected and appointed officials and volunteers who have dedicated themselves to their communities and the cause of hometown governance. Recognizing the growing complexities, the need to meet residents where they are, and the importance of looking to the future, our communities have scaled up their capacity and competencies, and empowered their employees to organize and implement modern approaches and best practices in the delivery of services.

Beyond the workforce, cities and towns have also embraced their role as laboratories to address national and global issues — especially when our national and international counterparts seem incapable of bold leadership. Our communities are addressing climate change, becoming Green Communities, applying for MVP funding, implementing stretch building codes, leading on recycling, plastics reduction, composting, and pressing for producer responsibility legislation. On racial equity, more and more communities are pivoting to DEI training, reviewing internal policies, and engaging in community dialogues on how to become more inclusive and equitable. This is hard work, yet our localities seem able to move ahead while other levels of government are stalemated.

At the local level, these conversations are more concrete, less polarized, and more relatable, and perhaps because of this, progress is more achievable.

If openness to change — having one foot in the future — is a dynamic that has enabled communities to adjust and move forward against stiff headwinds, the other dynamic contributing to municipal success has one foot firmly planted in the past — the steadfast tradition of service to neighbor and community.

A few paragraphs above I referred to “daytime” government. These are the people and systems who operate our departments during the daylight hours, the folks who are career professionals.

In Massachusetts (and the rest of New England), however, our “nighttime” governments are equal partners, driven by appointed and elected volunteers, who give their own time as a service to others.

Select Boards. Councils. Finance Committees. Representative Town Meeting Members. Library Boards. School Committees. Historical Commissions. Planning Boards. Zoning Boards. Recreation Committees. Housing Authorities. Registrars of Voters. Building Committees. Historical Commissions. Councils on Aging. Economic and Community Development Boards. Health Boards. DEI and Human Rights Committees. Arts and Culture Councils. And more.

Since the earliest days of municipal government in Massachusetts, centuries ago, hundreds of thousands (at least!) of residents have stepped up to give their time and talent to moving their community forward, no matter the challenge, no matter the issue.

These volunteers have planned and built thousands of town and city halls, schools, libraries, senior centers, police and fire stations, and public works garages. These volunteers have set policies for the use of our parks and forests, and all public facilities. These volunteers have shaped and approved budgets, tax increases, and the issuance of public debt, all to support services and structures designed to provide their neighbors with a quality of life that offers safety, opportunity and happiness. These volunteers have shared information, compared notes, learned from each other, and embraced a common commitment to be ever better.

The big story is that nearly every person who gets involved in local government does so because they want to help build their community’s future with positive intent. Some may be driven by what they want to keep. Others may be driven by what they want to change. Yet the common denominator is a desire to have a community that they love.

There may be more friction today because many issues can be polarizing, and forums for balanced dialogue are harder to find. Yet most of the time, our folks can find a path forward together. That’s why it is so important that communities tackle the challenge of incivility, so that the people with positive intent remain active, engaged and involved, and feel supported.

The tradition of community service is woven into the tapestry of local government here in Massachusetts. The tightness of that weave, that blend of volunteer public service and evolution of professional administration, has made us resilient and strong, and enabled our communities to navigate through massive change, and thrive in a world that is more complex, immediate and difficult.

I don’t know what the next 30 years will bring, but I do know that local leaders will continue to meet every challenge, because of our state’s tradition of community- and volunteer-based governance, our locally driven commitment to professionalization and continuous improvement, and the abiding impulse to adjust and adapt to change.

That’s the magic of local government that I’ve seen over the years.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO