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Planning Ahead for a Change in Leadership

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

By Peter Melan
April 6, 2021

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 the 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 or 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 is 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 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. The continuity of operating the organization during a time of transition is critical. This is true especially when analyzing the need to maintain the current leadership, in case elections do result in a shift of how the government is structured. 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, which include 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, personal animus or direct repudiation of 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 to implement correctly. 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 while avoiding corrupting the position—a state that the father of administration sought to avoid.

Author: Peter Melan is the owner of PeterMelan.com a consulting firm specializing in local government. He is a second-term councilperson in Easton, PA. Peter is also a public speaker and a writer for several online publications. He recently received his MPA from Ohio University and is in his first semester of doctoral studies at West Chester University.

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