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The Gorillas in the Room

Each week I scan the web for interesting and useful news, blogs, and reports and post them to our website. As I was reviewing my most recent posts, I noticed that several of them were about some of the most serious problems that local governments face. On reflection, it also occurred to me that they shared several attributes that put them in a special class of local government problems, sometimes known as the “gorillas in the room.”

The gorillas that I encountered in my latest scan included: (1) the potential for a Cascadia megaquake; (2) the growing opioid crisis; (3) our deteriorating infrastructure; (4) the blight of homelessness; and (5) the lack of affordable housing. These are in no particular order and they certainly do not account for all of the gorillas in the room.

This blog briefly reviews the attributes that make gorilla problems unique, and how these attributes affect, for better or worse, the ways that we respond to them. Gorillas share a number of common characteristics that make them particularly challenging for local governments.

They’re Big!

First, all of these problems are big with far-reaching impacts that affect large numbers of citizens. If not addressed most promise serious, if not dire, consequences. Opioid use and abuse, for example, has become a major public health problem that has left few parts of our country untouched. The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that deaths from opioid overdoses reached more than 33,000 nationally in 2015, the highest number on record.

They Can Be Overwhelming

Their very size and scale can be overwhelming, making it hard to know where to start, or worse, creating a sense of helplessness. Take the problem of deteriorating infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the investment needed to achieve a state of “good repair” for our infrastructure by 2020 amounts to $3.6 trillion. Truly a daunting challenge!

There Are No Quick Fixes

Unfortunately gorilla problems rarely lend themselves to easy solutions or quick fixes. Ending the problem of chronic homelessness will likely take years of coordinated efforts by state and local governments working together with members of the private sector. Meanwhile, it’s all too easy to get sidetracked by other, “more pressing” issues that seem to be constantly demanding our attention.

Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later

Gorilla problems tend to have a “pay me now or pay me later” character. Some take their toll over a long period of time, like the opioid crisis, while others, like a megaquake, may take their toll in one devastating event. The cost of meeting our country’s infrastructure needs have fiscal impacts that will likely be intergenerational in nature. Deliberately or not, for a variety of reasons we too often choose the “pay me later” option, and it always costs a lot more.

They Aren’t Going Away

Most gorillas aren’t going to go away on their own and some may be with us for a very long time. Regardless of what we do, the Juan de Fuca plate is going to keep sliding beneath the North American plate and, at some point, all of the pressure that’s been building beneath the Cascadia subduction zone is going to be released. When that happens, we will likely experience a very large and potentially catastrophic megaquake. The question is, how prepared will we be? Unfortunately, in too many instances it takes a tragic “wake-up call” like this to get everyone’s attention.

What Is to Be Done?

So, how do we deal with all of these big and seemingly intractable problems? Well, they’re gorillas after all, so it will be helpful to simply acknowledge this fact, both as a way to manage expectations and to prepare ourselves for the job ahead. We know that none of them will be “solved” overnight and most will require years of sustained effort. Gorilla problems offer fewer “mission accomplished” moments, so we can and should celebrate any significant milestones along the way. These efforts will require strong and determined leadership that remains committed and focused over the long term.

Because gorilla problems tend to cut across jurisdictional lines, it’s important for local governments to partner with each other, both to work together and to share promising practices and lessons learned. Local governments should develop public-private partnerships for the same reasons.

Just taking the time to talk about a problem can be helpful, too. As community leaders, elected and appointed officials play a critical role in raising community awareness. It may be some time before we will be more fully prepared to deal with the effects of a megaquake, but educating citizens now about things like improving household preparedness can do a lot to mitigate the effects of a major earthquake.

More Gorillas

I didn’t set out to make a comprehensive list of all of the “gorillas in the room,” and we all know there are more. Use the comment form below to tell us about the gorillas you are dealing with and the special challenges they are presenting.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Byron Katsuyama

About Byron Katsuyama

Byron retired from MRSC in 2021. He wrote about forms of government, strategic planning, performance measurement, emerging issues, and general local government management.