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Local Government Manager Education Needs to Provide a Broad Range of Skills and Abilities

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

By James Bourey
September 19, 2021

As a long-time city and county manager, I know that managers cannot be experts in all the different responsibilities and services their organizations provide. While they must rely on subject matter experts in their departments, it is important that they possess a basic understanding of each function. A manager could not be expected to know how to size a pipe for a sewer line or all the detailed accounting rules that govern local government finance. However, it is important for the manager to understand the principles of how a sewer system operates, what a sewer interceptor is, what the difference is between a gravity line and a force main as well as know what tertiary treatment is. It is also important for them to have a solid understanding of budgeting and finance and how budgets are developed.

 It stands to reason that not all of the skills needed to be an effective manager can be learned in a masters of public administration (MPA) or other masters’ degree programs. Of course, many managers take different educational paths to a manager position besides an MPA program. This column is not intended to suggest that an MPA program is not the best preparation for local government management, but rather to point out some important areas of knowledge that are vital to managers beyond the widely accepted skillsets generally found in MPA programs. For full disclosure, neither of the two masters degrees I obtained were an MPA. While an MPA may have helped in my career as a manager, the knowledge I obtained in my education did help me in ways that an MPA would not have.

It appears to me that the MPA and master of public affairs do an excellent job of preparing managers in the areas of budgeting and finance, policy development, quantitative methods and personnel management. However, I do not see much emphasis on developing knowledge and understanding of the physical makeup of a city or its development. This seems a bit ironic since the origins of the profession weighed so heavily on civil engineering. To be effective, managers must have a very good understanding of the physical infrastructure that allows cities to function. For instance, they need to understand that water systems must to be “looped” and always maintain a minimum amount of pressure. The couple of engineering courses I had as part of my education were a huge asset throughout my career. An understanding of the basics of transportation systems is also vital. This includes not only such things as traffic generation and road network operations, but also the functioning of transit systems and appropriate technologies. Further, managers must understand land use development and control. While a manager will have planners to rely on for recommendations, they must understand the basics of land development economics as well as comprehensive planning and zoning. One of the most valuable graduate courses I took was a law school class on land development regulation.  

On a regular basis, councils make decisions about the infrastructure of the city as well as its development. Councils want to know that their managers have a good grasp on the fundamentals in areas where the manager must evaluate the recommendations of professionals. And managers must be able to have an intelligent conversation with council members on the issues. Without sufficient background to evaluate the recommendations, how does the manager know if a staff recommendation is appropriate?

Also, managers need to know how to manage projects. They need to know how to develop a project schedule, how to allocate resources and how to direct those resources to complete tasks. Project management is key to how much work gets done in a local government. Some managers learn this, as I did, when I worked in a department and managed tasks involving staff. An educational background in project management would have been most helpful.  

In addition to knowledge of these services and their delivery, managers must have a high level of emotional intelligence. Given the need to effectively relate to council members, staff and the public, I would argue this is one of the most critical skills a manager needs. The training I received in emotional intelligence was the most valuable I received as a professional. I wish this had been sooner than 20 years into my career.

Emotional intelligence training can assist managers with navigating the dynamic of the council. For instance, while a manager reports to the entire council and the entire council makes policy decisions, individual council members often have positions which run counter to the full council direction and sometimes attempt to pressure the manager into following their minority view. While the manager is obligated to not follow this individual council member’s wishes, how they handle this situation can determine if they make an enemy of the member or not.

Whether advising the council on technical matters or establishing effective interpersonal relationships, the more managers can be prepared for their roles, the more effective they will be.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager.

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One Response to Local Government Manager Education Needs to Provide a Broad Range of Skills and Abilities

  1. Ian Hutcheson Reply

    September 24, 2021 at 1:01 pm

    Thank you sharing your reflections Jim, very insightful read.

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