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Everything Everywhere All at Once: 5 Survival Skills for City Managers

By Mark Funkhouser

Among the many local-government conferences I have attended so far this year, the International City/County Management Association’s recent gathering in Austin stood out: It was an impressively well attended event (5,500 registrants represented a new record for the association) with substantive programming on a huge range of topics of concern to city managers. These professionals feel the weight of local government on their shoulders, and the conference offered them a space to learn, recharge and think creatively about the issues, challenges and opportunities in their communities.

“I think there is a great deal of trauma among prospective city managers. … I worry about people who are new to the profession, if they don’t realize there are skills useful to read one’s council and community and to leverage one’s role,” notes Mark Scott who has served several cities as a “fixer” brought in to “right the ship” after a crisis. Mark was one of the excellent contributors to the conference panel I had the pleasure of moderating on “Bridging the Gap Between City Management and Politics.”

City managers are on the front lines of the most vexing challenges facing municipalities, from staffing and capacity shortages to political polarization and budgetary woes, along with seemingly intractable problems like housing affordability and homelessness. They also sit at the nexus of policy aspirations and practical implementation, a place that increasingly has become more volatile and even hostile. I have long argued that leaders in city management should heed the “reflections of a ‘pracademic’” expressed 30 years ago by John Nalbandian, in which he described the role of the city manager as an interpreter between elected officials and professional staff.

In the current climate, the erosion of social capital — our sense of community and that we’re all in it together — and increasing political conflict make the city manager’s bridging or interpreting role more difficult, yet more vital than ever. Drawing on the collective wisdom of my panel, here are five recommendations for how city managers can effectively step into that role and even thrive in it:


Get into the politics

The old rules of the politics-administration dichotomy are breaking down, and effective governance means city managers have to engage elected officials differently. Today’s city manager has to be someone who doesn’t shirk from pushing council members to move beyond their own agendas and look at what will benefit the community as a whole. This is especially difficult given today’s heightened political polarization. It requires, as I explain below, generating credibility and political support through engagement, proactive planning and accountability.

Leverage the budget process

The budget process can be used to force the city council to come to grips with the trade-offs they need to make. As I have written before, budgeting is inherently part of the political process; it’s how we determine what values we will make real. Panelist Jeff Barton, who was Phoenix’s budget director before he became city manager, says that every fiscal decision the city makes must be structurally sound for the long term. “So when it’s time to address water rates or property taxes or those different things that have been ignored over the years, [council members] know I’m not going to kick the can. We’re going to make tough decisions, and we’re at least going to have those conversations in public. Now, what they choose to do on the dais, that’s up to them, but we’re at least going to have the conversation publicly.”

Engage the community

The city manager and his or her professional staff must build relationships directly with the community. It’s no longer the case that the staff can just carry out the administrative work and let the council be the sole face and voice of the community. “From the day you start in a city manager job, you really need to be creating your own constituency,” says Scott. Make sure your office and your departments (and not just those providing direct services to the community) engage with residents and stakeholders regularly and maintain a two-way dialogue to keep a finger on the pulse of your constituents. If you cultivate that rapport, the council will treat you with more respect when they realize that the community understands and values your contribution. This takes a lot of legwork and requires city managers and their staffs to be effective communicators.


Create strategic plans that connect the dots across the organization

The governing body will often resist the creation and implementation of a formal strategic plan. They feel that it may box them in or detract from their hyper-focused priorities. However, creating a dynamic strategic plan allows you to be more proactive and address community challenges and opportunities in holistic, integrated ways. In the absence of a plan, you’re constantly reacting and putting out fires, while department heads are likely to feel whiplash from an ever-changing direction and focus. Taking the council through a strong strategic planning process that links together neighborhood or department-level plans, ties them to data and accountability measures, and is co-created with the community can lead to results that make both the staff and the elected officials look good in the eyes of their constituents.


Set expectations and guardrails

During the job interview and negotiation process, be clear about how you see your role versus the council’s and get protections built into the employment agreement. It needs to be clear to the council what your values are and that you will be unwavering in sticking to those principles and will stand up for what’s best for the whole community. Be clear that you will share information neutrally with everyone on the council and avoid getting involved in whatever drama they might have with each other. Codify the objectives and success measures of your role around key performance metrics. You can’t fix everything, and you certainly won’t fix your elected officials. If it turns out that values and/or methods cannot be aligned, be prepared to walk away. Neither your career nor the community will benefit from perpetuating a dysfunctional relationship with a governing body.

The council-manager model of city government was created a little over a hundred years ago in a world that seemed (but wasn’t) much simpler. In the cities where it was adopted, a small group of white men would hire another white man, often an engineer, to “run the city like a business.” That world is gone. Today’s world is a better one in which rights, problems and responsibilities that previously were ignored are now recognized, and cities must act upon them. But it’s also a messier, more difficult world that city managers are learning to navigate. These skills and tactics, drawn from the lessons shared by my panelists and my many conversations with other local officials, can help you rise to the challenges of local government today and lay the path for the city managers of tomorrow.


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