City/County Managers: More than Technocrats

In response to my last posting on the council-manager form of local government, one person expressed concern about "corporatizing" government. Another response noted that the manager form of government could be technocratic.

Both writers raise excellent points. While the business of local government is the retail delivery of services, local government is not a business. This was a distinction I always made to new employees when I was a manager and a point that I continue make with my students. I ask them: what is the difference between local government and a private business? The answer lies in the underlying purpose of each entity; in the end success is measured differently.

In a private business the single most important metric is profit, sustained over a long period of time. In contrast, most local government transactions are indirect; payment of services comes through taxes that are collected separately and apart from any direct receipt of a service. There is actually an incentive to keep taxes, and thus revenue, down.

No, local governments are not about making profit; they are about making community.

Local governments do not provide services just for the sake of providing services. A municipal corporation strives for a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts: a community where people want to live, work, do business, visit, and play.

For example, people want a safe community. A safe community, however, is not the result of a single service, such as police. Police are certainly important, but so are the character of the neighborhoods, the schools, the streets, and the parks. A feeling and a reality of safety are achieved through complex interaction across many different services.

At the same time, each of the individual services has to be managed effectively. Like a private corporation, local governments have customers and a responsibility to provide good customer service, have quality control, and provide good value. This is where professional management becomes essential; i.e., in the competent delivery of services.

Paradoxically, in this pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness, there is a risk of local government professionals actually becoming mere technocrats - and this is not ok because a professional, local government CEO has to possess more than technical skills. The right answer for the quality and volume of a local government service is not a technical question, but a complicated interplay of technical, policy, and political choices.

To understand the complexity of the issue, consider the point writer and consultant Russell M. Linden makes. He says that local environment consists of three sets of overlapping and sometimes conflicting stakeholders (Seamless Government, 1994):

  • Customers - people who pay for a service;
  • Consumers - people who actually use a service; and
  • Constituents - people who care about a service, sometimes in diametrically opposing ways.

This level of human interaction and complexity cannot be processed through an equation. There's an old saying that there is no republican or democratic way to pave a street, which is true. Local governments hire engineers to figure this out. It is considerably more challenging to determine which streets get paved, in what order, who pays, and where streets rank among the competing priorities of police, recreation, libraries, school, gang prevention, restaurant inspections, etc.

It is the responsibility of professional city/county managers to make the deliberation of questions such as the preceding more transparent and the process for determining who gets what as rational as possible, free from favoritism and other forms of unethical conduct. Managers must be more than technocrats in order to understand the range of appropriate policy options across numerous service areas in a given community and the implications of each for different stakeholders. Then they must have the ability to effectively present options and recommendations publicly to the elected officials so that the elected officials can collectively make informed policy decisions--which the manager will implement with technical competence--for their community.