2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: A Conversation with Executive Director David Warm

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In more than 30 years working as the Executive Director of the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), David Warm has consistently been a remarkable leader for the Kansas City metropolitan area, and we are pleased to recognize him as a recipient of this year’s NARC President’s Award. His effectiveness as a community leader has earned him respect and admiration not only in his own community, but among regional planning organizations across the country. For nearly an entire generation, David has been a true ambassador for the principles of regionalism in government and an example for other regional leaders to follow.

This is especially seen in the growth of MARC over the past three decades. Under David’s leadership, the regional council has seen its staff increase from 55 to 166 employees and its budget grow from $8 million to $83 million. He’s used that growth to spearhead countless regional initiatives, from the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to greater commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, to the development of a thoughtful and innovative long-range transportation plan. Even beyond MARC, David has modelled what regional cooperation should look like through his work advising various non-profit and civic organizations in the Kansas City area.

David’s achievements in the Kansas City region and beyond serve as a model for what effective regional cooperation can look like in the future. We asked him about some of his own accomplishments and what he sees as the future for regionalism in government.

What role has regional cooperation played in your successes at MARC?

I think we have succeeded on many fronts at MARC because we tend to view regional cooperation not as the goal, but a means to a goal. We approach our work by first trying to understand a shared need or opportunity. Regional cooperation often emerges as an important, though not exclusive tool, to help us move forward.

We also understand that regional collaboration can never be built on sacrifice or loss — it must find the intersection among disparate interests where a unified interest can emerge. We try to pay close attention to creating the conditions for cooperation and, as often as not, the actors themselves arrive at solutions that make sense for the community.

What lessons have you learned about encouraging people to cooperate on important projects?

I have found these three things matter the most to facilitate cooperation:

First, leadership matters. We always get farther when we are supporting one or more people or groups — elected officials, professionals, civic voices — who bring energy and vision to an idea and who inspire commitment and action. These are the kinds of leaders who do not use their positional authority but are by nature collaborative peer problem solvers skilled at building broad-based support among diverse interests.

Second, process matters. How we approach an issue often determines our progress. Regional affairs require careful attention to the process by which we address a situation: engaging the right people, framing the issue positively, setting principles, focusing on facts, clarifying the need or opportunity, continual communication and many other strategies that increase the possibility for progress.

Third, what matters the most is trust. Regional councils are not merely in the regional business—we are in the trust-building business. To succeed, we need to create the environment in which diverse actors not only trust us, but also find ways to trust each other to advance an idea. Regional trust is built as is any facet of life, through fostering mutual respect, open communication and addressing the needs of others.

In an era where government at all levels is the target of suspicion and mistrust, collaboration can be a powerful antidote. Working together creates bonds, both professional and personal, and out of those bonds emerge the seeds of trust that can bear fruit in the form of better outcomes for residents and communities.

During your time at MARC, how important has familiarity with the people in your community been in addressing issues?

Familiarity is very helpful. Our organization has formed deep partnerships and credibility that continues to serve us well. But all relationships require continual care, and it is imperative that we constantly stay connected, relevant and valuable to our partners, civic leaders and the community at large.

It is equally imperative that we work with intentionality to form new relationships as actors change, circumstances shift and new opportunities emerge. We need to be especially attentive to building authentic, effective relationships with diverse communities and interests across the region who have historically been left out of many regional conversations, but whose active voices are essential to our future. Engaging these new voices will be critical as regional councils work to address racial inequities, which in most American regions has been aggravated by regional housing, transportation, and educational systems.

What is something you know now that you wish you knew when you first began your career?

I wish I had held a different view of the role and process of planning. For much of my career in local government and at MARC, we followed a process for thinking about the future that strived to express a coherent vision and lay out the steps to achieve that vision. We relied on assumptions about the future that were essentially an extension of trends at the time.

We now have a much clearer understanding of the broader driving forces that will shape the future of our region — including globalization, demographics, technology and climate change. The impact of these is not clear and can be impossible to predict. We are now adjusting our planning to consider new scenarios so we can make choices today to minimize threats and maximize opportunities. As a result, I think we are making more resilient plans and decisions today than we did in the early part of my career.

How has the shape and scope of regional cooperation changed throughout your career?

Regional collaboration is more prevalent and more complex than it has ever been.

When I started my career in city government 40-plus years ago, one of my early assignments was to help create an inter-governmental insurance pool, and one of the major civic efforts I worked on was to build a community center connected to a middle school to share recreational and performance facilities. These were not original ideas but at the time were considered progressive. Yet today, these kinds of joint service agreements are now commonplace across America.

In addition to becoming more prevalent, collaboration has become more complex. Early in my career, collaboration tended to be bilateral or inter-local relationships around a specific issue or outcome, e.g., cities cooperatively forming an insurance pool, or the city and school district building a shared facility.

We now also have countless robust relationships that involve multiple partners and sectors that are aimed at achieving long-term outcomes — everything from joint ventures to technology platforms and service agreements that allow for person-centered, cooperative case management to civic partnerships that drive regional agendas and coordinate public and private resources. Technology, resource constraints, public expectations and competitive forces continue to drive innovation in the models used to advance regional outcomes.

What traits — in both yourself and others — do you think are most important to being an effective community leader?

I think of public leadership not as specific traits, but as the process by which you try to make decisions or approach situations to strive to simultaneously advance three core goals:

  1. Be true to yourself — to your values, principles and your authentic character.
  2. Honor your relationships — with your organization, your partners, your funders and, above all, your community.
  3. Honor your obligations — to your duties, your profession, your associations and, above all, to continually find ways to better serve the public.

How to approach any situation that balances all three goals will change, but in a community context, it usually involves active engagement and communication that enables solutions to emerge that find the confluence between what you believe, who you need to serve and how you can be effective.

What future role do you see for regionalism in government?

Several realities make regional approaches ever more essential: Fiscal pressures in the face of increased public expectations, competitive global pressures that compel communities to build the collective capacity to compete, and practical pressures — from homelessness to environmental protection to workforce development to traffic management — that require multi-faceted regional strategies.

Despite these pressures to collaborate, many factors combine to make regional approaches challenging, including structural fragmentation, social and economic disparities, conflicting values, and the time and patience required to craft thoughtful regional strategies.

Yet, given the overriding pressures to collaborate, local government leaders will be compelled in the coming decade to spend increasing amounts of time, political skills and resources to support collaborative strategies to guide their communities. They will spend as much time looking outside city hall as inside. Basic service delivery will remain important, but the key drivers of local government will be resource leveraging, community positioning, problem solving and strategic leadership — all of which require work in tandem and in sustained, collaborative partnerships with many other institutions.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way you view your work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had two major, opposite impacts.

On the one hand, it has opened our thinking about the ways in which we manage our organizations, deliver services, engage with our partners and communicate with the public. It has demonstrated our value, nimbleness and creativity as an organization as we have retooled virtually everything we do — internally and externally. We have built new partnerships with philanthropy, hospitals, community-based organizations and many others as we have come together to address pressing public health, economic and social issues that have converged over the last two years.

On the other hand, the pandemic has been hard on regional relationships. Interactions via electronic means have been more transactional, and it has been challenging to nurture engagement, especially among new public officials. We have also had to make very difficult decisions on how to manage the public health crisis, and the diversity of views, values and perspectives has tested relationships. At the same time, economic stress and the compelling but difficult issue of racial disparity has made every decision more complex.

As we move forward, I am hopeful that we will be able to use the innovation and openness we advanced during the pandemic to address the deeper issues in front of us as a regional community and, that as we do so, we will foster even stronger, more resilient relationships for the future.

What impact has coordination with like-minded colleagues had on your own leadership abilities?

Perhaps the greatest honor and greatest joy of my career has been to be able to work alongside talented, dedicated public officials, civic leaders and professional peers.

I have worked with and for hundreds of elected leaders over many years, and I continue to be impressed by the caliber of the people who step forward, with no personal benefit, to take on very challenging roles, motivated simply by a goal to advance the quality of their community.

I continue to be inspired by countless civic leaders — from neighborhood advocates to corporate executives — who care deeply about the places they call home.

And I am fueled by the examples of my peers — regional council directors, public administrators and nonprofit managers — whom I consider to be friends, teachers and mentors. I have been deeply privileged to work with so many amazing people who exemplify the very best of public service.

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