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Is the Council-Manager Form of Government the Right Form of Government?

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

By Michael R. Ford
February 23, 2021 

Growing up in Chicagoland, it was common lore (at least among us cool kids that followed politics and public policy) that the 1979 blizzard cost Mayor Michael Bilandic his re-election. As the story goes, the city’s response was inadequate, and the mayor’s promises did not match what citizens were actually experiencing during and after the storm. As a kid our massive snowblower, which my dad often proudly declared was purchased after the 1979 blizzard, served as a personal reminder of the way in which basic municipal service delivery is politicized. That 1979 storm was not a Democratic or Republican blizzard. It held no political loyalties, yet it helped decide an election.

I am thinking of this as a debate continues in my community over our form of government. Oshkosh, WI has a council-manager system, where six at-large elected council members, and an at-large weak mayor, hire and evaluate the professional manager. During election season it is common for candidates to advocate for a change, arguing that the City Manager is overpaid, that the position lacks electoral accountability, or that the lack of ward elections suppresses representation. Broadly, the critique is that a professional manager in a city of almost 70,000 people prevents voters from influencing city operations. Or, more simply, it is a system that is not democratic enough.

It is worth revisiting the origins of the council-manager form of government. This form of government began in the early 20th century as a progressive-era reaction to local government corruption (perhaps most famously manifest in the urban political machine era). The logic was that a professional manager hired based on their expertise is better suited to run the day-to-day operations of local government than an elected official motivated or constrained by political loyalties. To return to the Chicago blizzard anecdote, the argument would be that a government response to a blizzard would be more efficient if politics were taken out of the equation. It is a basic economy of force situation; service delivery is most effective when the time and efforts spent on secondary objectives, like politics, are minimized.

As always, the reality is more complex. Anyone working in or around a council-manager form of government knows a professional manager is never fully isolated from politics. The City Manager must communicate with elected officials regularly, hears from the public on controversial issues and even holds personal policy preferences. In addition, the lines between policy, the responsibility of elected council members and implementation, the responsibility of the professional manager, are rarely black and white. Elected officials may attempt to influence implementation indirectly through communications with city staff, or even directly through the language of ordinances and resolutions. Similarly, a hired manager may attempt to influence policy in the way they choose to frame communications, the way in which they prioritize community needs or even through direct lobbying of council members.

To put it another way, the council-manager form of government does not always work as advertised. But does it ultimately work? Jered Carr summarized existing literature and concluded that the connection between government form and effectiveness is not so clear. There is evidence of improved performance in the council-manager form, but because local governments are so varied across contexts, and because effectiveness is a difficult concept to operationalize, much more research is needed to make a universal claim. Perhaps the relevant question is not whether the council-manager form of government is the right form, but whether the council-manager form of government is right form for a specific community.  

In my experience, professional management of municipalities offers a continuity that is consistent with the responsibilities of city governments. Municipal employees are often in it for the long haul, and dramatic shifts in politically influenced management can quickly alienate employees, or even push them out the door. Related, an effective local government requires planning and commitment; fiscal health, infrastructure, external partnerships and human capital development are long-term projects. The swinging of the political pendulum can plunge cities into a cycle of constantly starting over. Or, and probably worse, the possibility of dramatic political changes may stifle innovation by making department heads risk-averse for fear of seeing work undone come election time. While none of these things can be cleanly operationalized as performance at a point in time, the cumulative effect of steady municipal leadership should be long-term performance gains.

Professional management also should temper the politicization of administrative processes. When such processes are politicized, professional judgement yields to political whims that may be divorced from administrative reality. To come full circle, do we really want basic services, like snow removal, politicized? All government structures have strengths and weaknesses, but the logic of professional management in local government remains strong.   

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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