Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | A look at the future of professional local government management.
The status quo is out and disruption is in. Innovation has quickly become the name of the game in cities and counties, which are ushering in a new era of experimentation powered by technology and data. While much has been made of the rise of technology and its associated effects, less discussed is how this new age will fundamentally alter the administration of local government and the role of city and county managers alongside it.
The future of professional local government management was a dominant theme at the 2019 International City/County Management Association Annual Conference. Part of the discussion centered on what skills future city managers will need to exhibit. Three skills, in particular—technical literacy on the application of new technologies, ability to communicate to build relationships and openness to new approaches to solving problems—were discussed during the conference.
While these skills have not been always emphasized in the past, the tide is already starting to turn. For example, Jennifer Reichelt, former deputy city manager in Great Falls, Montana, said that city councils now want to know how prospective managers have implemented technology and innovation in previous communities they led.
Marc Ott, Executive Director of ICMA, said the way to address new expectations and be ready for the future all comes down to leadership. “City managers need to utilize their leadership skills in ways they didn’t before,” he said, adding managers will need to be a “convener of people and facilitator of conversation.”
Tanisha Briley, city manager of Cleveland Heights in Ohio, further emphasized Ott’s point. While managers traditionally work behind the scenes, that may no longer work, as residents want to hear from city leaders. “Five years ago, [residents] did not care. Now they want answers and to participate in the process,” she said. Briley added that residents in her community are “hyper engaged,” wanting to be a part of the decision-making lifecycle from identifying the problem to deliberating on the final decision.
Relatedly, some community leaders need to do a better job of finding the people who face barriers to becoming engaged in the civic process. For example, the traditional style of community engagement in the form of evening public hearings does not account for the way people live and work. Steven Downs, the deputy manager in Orem, Utah, a city projected to double in size in the next 20 years, witnessed this first hand. Orem sought citizen feedback on what the future would look like for his community, but struggled to get responses. Then Downs had a realization. As a young community, with a median age of 26, young families prioritized family dinner time, which made night meetings not ideal. The city then shifted tactics to meet people where they are by participating in other popular events. Similarly, the city hosted an evening dinner for the whole family and used it as an opportunity to facilitate conversations. This had the added benefit of saving money because sending out mailers cost the city approximately $6,000 and yielded little return, Downs said, but hosting the dinner cost $900 and brought out far more people than the mailers ever did.
In the coming years, it is likely there will be even more demand for more personal leadership, not less. Similarly, it will continue to be incumbent upon managers to abandon the “this is the way we have always done it” attitude and adopt styles that are unique, engaging and relevant to the communities they serve.
At the same time, for city and county managers the core goal will continue to be delivering the full range of government services “objectively, professionally and without favor to any particular party or interest,” as Ott put it. He noted that the challenge and opportunity for managers is that “local government is at the epicenter of doing things that hold the greatest promise for improving the quality of life for people.”
Alisha Powell Gillis is the senior editor for Route Fifty.
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