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Are We Planning for Future Leadership?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Peter Melan
March 10, 2020

The public sector will continue to operate in its current fashion with leaders who remain in their positions for many years. In most scenarios, the most experienced administrators come with decades of being productive and their creative ability to solve complex problems. It is difficult to deny that having a seasoned veteran in a position to run a municipality speaks volumes; however, what happens when that leader decides to seek alternative employment or retires? Yes, panic ensues, and the, “Oh boy, what do we do now reaction?” happens.

When private sector companies lose chief executives, there is most likely a succession plan in place to avoid an interruption of leadership. Even in cases where an administrator retires in a larger municipality, chances are there is an assistant of deputy who can temporarily fill in the role until a search or formal promotion is made.

In a situation where there is no assistant or deputy administrator, the onus falls on elected officials to ensure important roles are immediately filled with qualified individuals. One particular way is to amend a home rule charter or ordinance that deals explicitly with this situation. Is there a competent department head prepared to take on the responsibilities in the rare event of a sudden retirement or separation? Is it the finance director? Is it the chief elected official such as a mayor or president of council? The realistic answer is that it depends on your form of government and what is allowed by law.

Opportunities to rise into positions of leadership are often found in localities around the country. Journals and studies report that public administrators remain in their place of employment for an average of seven years. Suffice to say, the figure is more of a baseline and not indicative of the industry where turnover may plateau ten or more years. The more years an administrator remains, the more experience gained, and continuity is maintained.

During the tenure of an administrator, succession planning should be a topic of discussion. There are variables calculated into how or when to create such a plan.  However, in most cases, the process seems non-existent, overlooked and undervalued. The external factors are limitless, and with any deviation of political strategy or irreconcilable differences, administrators are sometimes the sacrificial lambs without any forethought of elected officials who wield their ideological stick.

Given that administrators are often political appointees, the teachings of President Woodrow Wilson, the father of administration, are critical in this context.

Dating to 1887 in an article titled The Study of Administration, the position of an administrator is the central figure discussed in the text. Taken directly out of the passage, President Wilson opines, “Namely, that administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices.”

The words spoken by President Wilson have merit and purpose. As time grew, so did personalities and technology, namely social media. Scholars could not envision political influence as a means to remove administrators when a change in guard occurred in elections. What is critical in analyzing the need to maintain the current leadership in case elections does result in a shift of how the government is structured. The continuity of operating the organization during a time of transition is critical. Legislative safeguards are put into place to prevent a potential shutdown or a mass exodus of department heads who concern themselves with new leadership and their loss of employment.

One of the stark realities is that governmental entities exist with no such safeguards in place. When reading through newspaper articles and online publications, there remains a small percentage of municipalities who survive by allowing nepotism and cronyism to dominate the political landscape. These two words are dangerous and allow for the possibility of the government failing in its essential purpose. It is critical to note that universal precautions are imperative to prevent malicious intent that includes returning political favors or providing positions of leadership to a campaign donor’s nephew. The practice will continue in perpetuity until the municipal organization allows for substantive change.

It is incumbent on local elected officials to place their municipality above all other values and personal animus or directly repudiating a former administration merely for the sake of politics. Although this practice is avoidable in most cases, it is unfortunately not an exception to the norm. Creating a succession plan with qualified individuals is tantamount to the success of the organization and requires serious consideration for correct implementation. President Wilson was unable to foresee the role of administrator and its unintended political consequence; however, it is critical to avoid the pitfalls of not having continuous leadership ready to serve. The challenge is to find those leaders who are trustworthy and maintain the qualifications to ensure a level of excellence in public administration without degenerating the industry to further political ideologies—and corrupt the position that the father of administration sought to avoid.

Author: Peter Melan is a local government consultant, a councilperson in the City of Easton, PA, public speaker and author for several online publications. He is in his final year of graduate studies in Public Administration at Ohio University. Peter is known for his creativity in solving problems using non-traditional methods, and for his experience in project management and data analytics. For more info visit : https://www.petermelan.com

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