I recently spent some time in Jinja, Uganda. This small city on the northern shore of Lake Victoria is known as the source of the Nile. The fabled river begins its journey here, where the large inland lake drains through a series of dams, falls, calm pools and whitewater rapids on its way north through the continent.
Jinja has leveraged its unique geologic feature to attract tourists and industry, including hydroelectric dams, breweries and a host of manufacturing operations. Similar to these industries, the tourists come for the river. Many will spend a day or two exploring the waterway, often opting to take a raft ride down the wide river to see the scenery and experience some whitewater exhilaration.
The rides start out calm. People are instructed on how to maneuver the inflatable boat as it traverses calm, open areas, as well as when it accelerates through the rapids. Perhaps the calm demeanor of the guides leads many novices to trust the ride will be both beautiful and fun. It is unfortunate some rafters think they can coast and let the river and the guide do the work. The resulting stories of near-drowning, broken bones, heart attacks and shock make it clear people should have heeded the warnings and instructions more seriously when the water was calm. Once they hit the churning rapids, too many were unprepared to help navigate and ended up creating dangerous situations for themselves and everyone else in the boat.
This is not a travel journal, warning readers of the dangers of rafting the Nile, although if you do decide to try this sport, please be prepared, listen to and follow instructions, or opt for a calmer kayak paddle on the still pools above the falls!
Looking back at my time in Jinja, I can see how some municipal managers and elected officials are today acting similarly to the uninformed, lackadaisical tourists on the rafts. Times are pretty calm now. There is no imminent danger to operations. The budget feels more stable than it has in five years. So, why worry about what might come downriver? Let’s just sit back, enjoy the scenery and let the municipality coast.
The problem with this attitude is, we know there will be rough waters ahead. Whether they are just around the next bend, or several years in the future, we cannot avoid them. The best way to ensure safe passage through the rough spots is to prepare, evaluate risks, train ourselves and everyone in the boat, and take time to ensure the raft will withstand the waves, rocks and whirlpools that can add exhilaration to our journey, or crash down on us hard and knock us out of the boat.
During times of calm, that’s when managers and policy makers need to step back, create the tools, metrics and policies needed to stabilize the municipality for years to come. This is the time to be pro-active, to create strategic management practices, establish sufficient reserves, invest in capital and find more efficient approaches to service delivery. Waiting until a crisis develops will force a reactive management response, which usually results in hasty decisions, public distrust, and frustration for all involved.