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Lessons to a Young Local Government Administrator—Part 1

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

By Ian M. Coyle
March 6, 2023

During my career in local government, now spanning nearly 20 years, I have been both the youngest Village Manager in my state and the youngest County Administrator. Counting internships, I have worked for a town, village, city, county, state and the federal government. “I wish I knew then what I know now” is the type of comment that comes to mind when reflecting on my career and both the bumps and joys along the way. I titled this piece Lessons to a Young Local Government Administrator, but one need not be young to enjoy and have this, hopefully, be of some impact and use. Additionally, while due to my most recent experience some of this is county branded, the notes and lessons here are really agnostic to the level or type of local government. One could just be fresh, green or new to the position of local government manager for these tutorial pieces to be of value.

  1. Network: We cannot underestimate the power of networking. And yes, for those remote-first folks, this sometimes means leaving the house to connect in-person with people at events, conferences and seminars. For the local government manager, these are professional association meetings at the national, regional and state level. Additionally, service and social clubs are appropriate vehicles for professional networking.
  2. Pay it Forward, Professional Courtesies: No matter the age or tenure profile, we need to pay it forward. Take those calls from aspiring managers. Establish those internship programs. Hold onto the entry-level positions for the up-and-coming people. Speak at a class. Consider mentoring those new to the profession. And participate actively in the brethren, camaraderie and brotherhood/ sisterhood of the profession. Reply to a list-serv post. Call up a newly appointed manager. Better yet, reach out to a professional who has lost their position or resigned under tumultuous circumstances.
  3. Realize that Board members will do things you don’t like: I would often get frustrated as a young manager in my first community when having to explain away Board inaction or unprofessionalism. We had lots of infighting on the Board. I still recall the Mayor decrying a fellow Board member at an open meeting with a send off “Pig’s nose!” I had no clue what that meant (and still do not) but it came across as amusing yes, but definitely intended as a derogatory comment. I still recall my wife saying “you need to write this stuff down, it will make a great book!” Book? Alas, not right now. Lessons? Yes, certainly. You have to learn to go with the flow, maintain a level of professionalism in your own conduct, and stay above the fray.
  4. Always appreciate the Composer/Conductor Relationship: On the heels of lesson #3, this of course is one of the most challenging. As local government administrators, we conduct the policy provided to us by the governing body, who has composed said policies. More specifically, a Board or Council gets elected and often runs on a policy slate or legislative action platform. The Council takes up policies, laws, regulations, ordinances and codes and the like and adopts these formally as part of their powers and responsibilities. This is where you come in! You’re the expert, the implementor, the effectuator, the conductor. The Board says things like: Make this happen! Carry out this initiative! Find funding for this pet project program! This is the action-oriented part of the work. We need to balance the wishes, intent and desires of the elected governing body, with our policy implementation and operational oversight expertise. As for the composer/conductor adage, enjoy the dance, and dance to its melody when you can, as the “music” is not always symphonic!
  5. Ethics First: The separator we value greatly and hold dearly in this profession, which differentiates between a true and pure professional county administrator and a politician, is the adherence to a code of ethics. My mother used to have the corny signs in our house (yes, the same types parodied in the insurance commercials) like “Live, Laugh, Love” and the like. There were also small postcard-sized ones near the phone and calendar in the kitchen. One was “What is right is not always popular, what is popular is not always right.” Think about that truism while implementing policy and managing the affairs of your government and you will be exemplifying the best of integrity-based practitioner work.

Author: Ian M. Coyle, ICMA-CM is the County Administrator in Livingston County, NY. He has worked in government for nearly 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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