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Challenges Ahead for Local Government Managers

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

By Ian Coyle
September 8, 2023

Local governments are used to challenges. Thorny, sticky, pesky, icky, challenges. Being the level of government that is both closest to the people and the most trusted by the people, cities and counties have displayed their chops in navigating crisis after crisis with deftness, nimbleness and vigor. 

While there are numerous challenges on the horizon for public administration universally—and frankly of organizations of all sizes and types, including non-profit and for-profit entities—here are my top 3 challenges for local government managers as we head into 2024.

  1. The ARPA Hangover

Much has been written about the transformative benefit of the American Rescue Plan distributions to local government. The benefit is unquestioned. From the county perspective, for example, the ARPA dollars were the largest, single transfer of Federal government revenues to county governments in the nation’s history. There is no denying the power of these one-time monies. That being said, these are indeed, one-time monies. Fiscal stewards raised alarms moment one about using these extraordinary funds judiciously. We all know the axioms—use recurring revenues for recurring expenses. Do not rely on one-shot revenues to balance a budget. Be wary of connecting ARPA dollars to unsustainable programs or personnel decisions. Alas, some cities and counties chose to flout conventional guidance. This is the hangover part 1. The reckoning will come if the funds were used in an imprudent fashion.

The second part of the hangover is simply not having these dollars available anymore, period. Great initiatives were completed with these revenues. Parks were built, roadways were improved, non-profits were supported, small business grant programs were established and replenished, public art installations were made in communities big and small. The list goes on and on. While these example endeavors were more in-line with the philosophy of one-time projects with one-time dollars, they nevertheless were carried out and in the carrying out the dollars were extinguished. The opportunity was maximized and now the opportunity has passed. Like all hangovers, we will always have the “remember when?”

2. The Politicization of Darn Near Everything

I will not waste my precious word count space on commentary about politics at the national level and what often seems like a race-to-the-bottom methodology, except to say that there are indeed new features to this movement that present an evolving challenge, and threat, to the field of local government management. I am old-school in that I feel the profession of local government management in its purest form is apolitical, non-partisan and strictly objective. There are unfortunate trends of late where examples abound of managers tacitly or explicitly wading into political waters. This erosion of the central tenet of the profession to me is a troubling challenge.

Managers have to toe a fine line. We always have had to toe a line, nothing is different and just because the tones have amplified and the rancor has intensified, does not mean that managers need to feel compelled to enter the political fray. Those that do jeopardize integrity and fail to uphold their responsibility to operate within the confines of a professional code of ethics. Such political-leaning conduct also undermines the profession as a whole. 

3. The Changing “Recognition” of the Profession

All facets of the local government workforce, post Covid, have had a recognition of sorts. Some of this originated from the “essential” workforce definitions that came about during lockdowns and the subsequent public acts of appreciation. Some of this was the display of commitment and dedication to the ideals of public service by many a local government employee during some very difficult times.  Some of this was related to the Great Resignation and upward compensation trends. Finally, some of it was just inflation and how governments had to right-size pay. Whatever the case, recognition—in the form of specifically compensation—has evolved some and will continue to change as we head into 2024.

The market for talent for local government managers is tight. Salaries are getting adjusted, at seemingly a record and torrid pace, and local governments will need to appreciate these trends and respond accordingly. When I work with other local governments on an executive search I make the comment that “it’s a good time to be a free agent.” Managers, in turn, are in positions of bargaining power that they also should appreciate and value. Fairness and appropriateness should rule the day and both sides should understand that norms are changing and that sticker-shock should be a thing of the past. A CEO / CAO of a multi-million dollar corporation (it could be a non-profit but certainly the for-profit side) is likely paid more than the City or County Manager in Anywhere, USA. That should not always be the case and communities nationwide are acknowledging that inequity and slowly but surely coming to terms with an acceptance of higher and more appropriate (to the expected suite of responsibilities and educational/experience requirements) compensation for local government managers. 

In closing, to my local government management colleagues facing these and other challenges, I commend you for your dedication and commitment to a worthy and respected profession. Embrace and meet these challenges head on!

Author: Dr. Ian M. Coyle, ICMA-CM is the County Administrator in Livingston County, NY. He has worked in government for 20 years and has taught MPA courses for a variety of universities. Through his consultancy, Pracademic Partners, Ian also provides assistance to other organizations in four key areas:  executive search;  management consulting;  executive/leadership coaching; and teaching, training & professional development experiences.

Email: [email protected]

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