Why would anyone want this job? Reflections on the local government manager's job

OhrenBy Dr. Joe Ohren, EMU Public Administration Faculty

In the fall of 1972 I started teaching undergraduate public administration and local government classes at Northern Kentucky University.  Thirteen years later I moved up to Eastern Michigan University and engaged both undergraduate and graduate students in similar classes.  Helping students understand the environment, structure and politics of local governments provided a foundation for classes in budgeting, financial management, human resources and organizational leadership for those students interested in pursuing positions in local government management.

Along the way I have talked with numerous students about their interest in serving as a local government manager.  (The titles of such positions can vary depending on the region—city administrator; type of unit—township manager; and tradition—superintendent or chief administrative officer—so I have used the generic title.)  And, the positions extend beyond those at the top of the organization as well; there are a variety of department manager positions in local governments, often defined by function (police, fire, public works, utilities, finance and so on).  In each case, part of my advice to students, even those who already worked in local governments, was to be clear about expectations, know what you are getting yourself into. 

Local government management positions, especially those located in traditional council-manager forms of government, are unlike most every other leadership position with which we are familiar.  In most jobs, employees have one supervisor to whom they report; that is the traditional notion of chain of command, part of the bureaucratic tradition that has dominated organizational arrangements in both the public and private sector in the United States for over a century.  My guess is that you can name very few other positions where an individual manager reports to and is held accountable by a governing board of five, seven, nine or more elected officials, many of whom have no background or expertise in organizational operations.

Local managers, the chief executive and often key department managers, are hired and fired by such an elected, or in some cases an appointed, governing board (again, I have used the generic name to avoid the confusion of council, commission or board).  Such officials are elected/selected on the basis of political values, personal charisma, position in the community or commitment to specific community issues, not necessarily on their familiarity with governmental operations.  Indeed, many such individuals are not familiar with the fact that in order to govern, that is to make decisions, they must work collectively.  Their individual values or specific personal issues must be accommodated with those of the other members serving on the board.  This often gives rise to conflict within governing boards, conflicts that often spill over to the relationship between the board and the local government manager. 

From the manager’s perspective it involves having to gauge the perspectives and desires of, and indeed responding to, those several individuals serving on the board; ascertaining which individual member wants what, and when, multiplied by five, or seven or nine and so on.  The manager’s job is to manage not only those departments and subordinates who deliver the community’s services, but also the relationships between and among the members of the governing board and their relationships with local government employees. 

At a minimum, the manager has to provide effective leadership for the organization and at the same time keep at least a majority of the governing board supportive of his or her efforts.  And, at times, the obligations to act professionally in the internal role of manager can create problems with the relationship with the governing board.  Defending local government employees from board and community criticism often is difficult, and can raise the level of tension between the manager and the board. 

Tales of managers caught in this difficult position are legion at manager meetings. Stories about:

  • A candidate for local election whose campaign is almost entirely about the role that the manager has played over the past months or years, ending with the resignation of the manager who found it almost impossible to function in the limelight; 
  • A city manager sitting comfortably at the start of a regular board meeting only to hear a board member propose to amend the agenda for the evening to consider termination of the manager—the first time that issue has been raised by the manager, again ending with the manager’s resignation rather than face the public debate over performance;
  • A manager whose contract is not renewed without being made aware of the reasons for the decision or even the board’s vote—contracts for local government managers seldom provide more than six to nine months of severance, unlike school superintendents who often have two or more years of severance in the event of termination.

These examples are just a few that my students would hear if they could sit in on the personal discussions that take place among managers at their regional or annual meetings.  Running afoul of a majority of the board is always a concern, but for managers it is just “part of the job.” 

So why would anybody want this job?  Why would anyone want to have to please members of a governing board who may not be familiar with the complexity of the issues, who think differently (read politically) than the administrators who serve them, and who might even reject or criticize the professional values that the manager is obligated to serve?  Why?

If my students could sit in on those personal discussions among managers, they would also hear stories about:

  • The impact that managers have had on a community, making the community a better place to live;
  • The manager’s ability to build consensus among members of the board and the staff with whom they work and get things done on behalf of the community;
  • Their capacity to engage the larger community in creating vibrancy, safety and harmony; and, perhaps most importantly,
  • Delivering the services in an efficient and effective fashion—public safety, recreation and utilities, for example—on which we rely for our daily quality of life.    

The job of the local government manager is not for everyone—the pay is not always great, job security can be a challenge, and in some communities the expectation is that a newly appointed manager would move into “their” community upon being offered a contract.  But can you imagine any other role or position that offers the potential to personally influence and shape the quality of life in a community?

As I would say to students, know what you are getting into, but the possibilities are endless.  I invite our alumni who are managers to share their own stories, good or bad, about their experiences to help our students better understand the environment within which they might end of working.

Dr. Joe Ohren ([email protected]) is a public administration faculty member of the Eastern Michigan University MPA Program, retiring from teaching after being with the program since 1985. Dr. Ohren has helped 60 communities with goal setting and team building programs throughout Michigan.

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