5 Performance Improvement
PLANS FOR TRIBES
Tribal governments often encounter far more fiscal, structural and economic development challenges than their US government counterparts.
Like state and local governments, tribal governments provide essential government services such as law enforcement, public safety, first-responder services, and court systems.
Tribal governments are also responsible for the health and welfare of tribal members, creating continuing education and job training initiatives, as well as a healthcare system that is often financially strained due to locations in rural areas. Tribal governments must also maintain land management and transportation systems, in addition to critical infrastructure elements such as water, electricity, broadband, and telecommunications. They also help guide and support economically critical industries on tribal lands, such as agriculture and tourism.
In short, tribal governments must provide a wide range of essential services for their members - from education to economic development to health care - all often under immense financial strains while striving to maintain their sovereignty. While we certainly do not have all the answers, here are some suggestions that could help tribal governments improve their efficiency and effectiveness on behalf of their sovereign members.
Make Government Relations a Priority
Every tribal government is representative of a sovereign nation, however it is also very dependent on its interaction with the federal government and surrounding communities. Having a strong working relationship with the state government, or governments, in which the tribal nation is located is imperative towards ensuring tribal members have sufficient water rights, roads, and other necessities.
Every tribal government should create a department or commission that is solely charged with building relationships with other governments - both tribal and US city, state and federal governments - for the simple reason that nearly every aspect of tribal government is dependent on other governments in some way. The ability to provide adequate access to health care, roads and education for tribal members is largely dependent on the federal and state government departments - such as the US Bureau of Indian Affairs - and individual school districts which are accountable to local governments.
In addition, tribal governments can reap income from leases, easements and other uses of federal trust land, from the sale of trust land and from damage awards related to trust land. All these revenues can be distributed to tribal members free from federal and state taxes.
However, the fact is that federal government funding of Native American education, housing, health care, and infrastructure is below the national average compared to the rest of the United States. This means that tribal members get less back for their tax dollars than almost anyone else. In addition, outdated laws and bureaucratic red tape keep tribal governments from accessing federal programs and assistance in equal standing with local and state governments, leading to a gap in living standards.
Tribal governments can place a renewed focus on trying to change this. An intergovernmental relations department or commission can lobby Congress and state legislatures on behalf of tribal interests, and negotiate stronger settle - ments and agreements with other governments who continue to seek access to tribal land for roadways and water rights.
Tribal governments can also affect change by encouraging its members to participate in the Democratic process. Studies have shown that Native Americans have voter turnout rates as much as 14 percent lower than that of other racial groups. This despite the fact that many tribal members live in states in which their votes could be critical in determining which political party controls the US House, US Senate and even the White House - as many tribes live in battleground states for the 2020 election.
Exercising their right to vote will force more US politicians to pay attention to the needs of tribal communities, and encourage them to work harder in Congress to secure their votes by - among other things - getting tribes the federal funding they deserve.
For a tribal government to operate efficiently, all departments, tribal-owned corporations, and leadership need to be actively working towards a single goal and agenda.
Communication is critical in this regard. Leadership must strive to ensure Tribal Council and Department Directors are all kept in the loop as to their long term plans and goals, and those key stakeholders are always involved in relevant discussions and decisions.
This is especially true of chapter 17 corporations, or tribal owned economic development corporations which often act independently, sometimes at odds with the vision and direction of the elected leadership of tribal government - despite technically operating under the umbrella of a tribal nation.
For example, the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, a wholly owned limited liability company of the Navajo Nation recently purchased three coal mines in Wyoming for over $75 million, making the company one of the largest coal producers in the United States. The problem, however, was that the Navajo President and Navajo Tribal Council were completely unaware of the purchase, only finding out about it through the press. The purchase has undermined Navajo leadership’s commitment to transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy, and unraveled future efforts towards this goal.
Another way to ensure that tribal governments communicate and work more effectively is to implement a top-down review of all IT infrastructures for every department. You would be amazed at how many offices still have fax machines, or lack tra-office communications software or email systems.
Make sure payroll and procurement utilize computerized billing system, to better maintain records and avoid double payments, or non-payments. Employ auditors and citizen ombudsman for every agency and department, to root out wasteful and redundant spending, and ensure tribal members have a forum to file grievances or suggestions.
Finally, one easy way to ensure tribal governments function more like corporations than bureaucracies is to have tribal leadership enroll in online MBA courses from accredited Universities, and other management online learning programs. Well-respected corporate training seminars could also be utilized to improve communications and management skills.
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There is no greater asset for a tribal government than to have the trust and approval of tribal members. This, of course, does not come easy, but a strong, public campaign for transparency and accountability of tax dollars will go a long way towards this end.
Every government should make a substantial, meaningful effort to involve tribal members in every aspect of government operations. Make sure all public notices for upcoming meetings are printed in every tribal publication and every relevant government website. They should also be posted on all social media accounts and sent out via email.
Encourage citizen interaction by utilizing social media, such as Facebook, to gather feedback and encourage tribal member participation in their government. For example, post a poll on social media asking their opinions on the most important issues facing the tribal nation. Announce any new funding, including new grants or settlements from the US government, and encourage members to post their thoughts on how it should be spent, or fully inform members on how you intend to spend it.
Also, encourage tribal members to sign up and enter their email addresses to receive updates from their government. This could be for anything from upcoming Council meeting agendas, to guides to weekend events, to job fairs or announcements. There is no better way to interact with tribal members than through email, or to ensure they stay engaged and interested in their tribal government.
If financially feasible, look to build and market a website that tracks all government spending by fiscal year. While this could be a fairly expensive project, this kind of accountability and transparency will go a long way towards building the trust and respect of the people.
All governments, whether tribal or state or federal, are in essence compacts between the people and their representatives. The greater the partnership between citizen and state, the more accountable and effective tribal government will be.
Focus on Tribal Identity and Culture
While it can be assumed no tribal government forgets the traditions, culture and history of their nation and its people, sometimes financial considerations causes them to be overlooked. They shouldn’t. Ever.
Tribal governments must maintain their sovereignty as the bedrock of cultural heritage and identity. Every tribal council vote, new regulation and ruling should strive to always stay true to tradition and culture.
For example, a tribal government could create a task force or commission to focus on land and zoning issues to ensure that tribal way of life is protected. The task force would work with developers, homebuilders and neighboring governments to manage growth protect sacred lands and maintain quality of life.
In addition, make sure tribal employees see themselves not just as service providers, or holders of menial 9-5 jobs, but rather as leaders of the tribal government. Make tribal members understand they are not just recipients of government services, or taxpayers, they are representatives and active citizens of a culture-rich, sovereign nation.
Drive Economic Development
Most tribal governments occupy land that is not close in proximity to large urban centers. Tribal nations mostly do not have large corporations headquartered on their land that provide thousands of well-paying jobs, nor do they have a great many small businesses compared to mid-size US cities and suburbs. As a result, unemployment is often far greater in tribal nations than the United States as a whole.
Recent IRS rulings have allowed tribal governments to own and manage Qualified Opportunity Zone Funds, which allow investments made in businesses located within federally-designated opportunity zones to be exempt from capital gains on those investments after ten years.
Tribal governments should make significant investments in job training and vocational education. Many tribal nations have a significant number of members that would qualify as an unskilled workforce. While this could be attractive to industries that rely on unskilled labor - such as coal mining, manufacturing or agriculture - these kinds of jobs tend to be low paying and without benefits.
Encouraging tribal members to become proficient in trades and technology not only makes them more valuable to potential employers, but makes the tribal nation a possible candidate for a company relocation, providing much needed jobs and revenue.
Along these lines, partner with any nearby colleges or universities that have a Native American department or program to develop an incubator or accelerator on the reservation.
Accelerators and incubators can provide important mentorship and networking opportunities for startups. Accelerator programs usually have a set timeframe in which individual companies spend anywhere from a few weeks to a few months working with a group of mentors, in exchange for equity. The mentorships are extremely valuable, offering a range of industry experience and expertise in addition to possible access to capital. Incubators are more geared towards developing innovative ideas into new startups, grouping entrepreneurs together to foster new ideas and innovation, along with planning and structure of new businesses.
There is no better way to create jobs than to give members the tools, mentorship, and resources they need to open new businesses on the reservation.
Finally, always be vigilant in seeking out new grants or sources of revenue. There are countless charities and non-profit organizations that provide grants for everything from childcare to health care that could be of enormous benefit to tribal members. Many charities specifically are designed to help lower-income, rural and minority communities.
There are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the United States, including private foundations. There is no question that many of these charities would likely be willing to offer assistance to tribal governments and members if they were given the chance to do so.
Tribal governments should work to develop a comprehensive database of US non-profit organizations, corporate philanthropic foundations and other groups that could provide needed funding for their community. There should be at least two full-time staff members dedicated solely to outreach to these organizations as well as at least one full-time grant writer.