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The Challenge of the City Manager: Being a Rational Actor in an Irrational Time

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

By Michael R. Ford
September 21, 2021

Over the past few weeks I have interviewed city managers across Wisconsin about their experiences governing during COVID-19. Not surprisingly, all say the past 18 months have been challenging. A common refrain is that managers were ready in terms of competence, but unprepared for the specifics of combatting a global pandemic. Something I did not see coming, however, was the way the politics of COVID-19 are impacting the morale of our professional managers.

The foundations of professional management, i.e. rationality, competence, expertise and a degree of insulation from politics, are increasingly divorced from the reality of local governing. One city manager tells me every COVID-19 related measure is met with resistance, regardless of the nature of the measure. In other words, the public (and sometimes staff) do not take issue with the specific action of the manager, but rather with the very idea that the manager can legitimately take action. The competence of a municipal manager becomes irrelevant when the role itself is viewed as suspect.

This is not the first time the municipal manager position has been threatened. The absence of direct electoral accountability has always been problematic for some. But, the current situation feels different. The usual tools for combatting skepticism, mainly competency and results, are met with resistance. For example, in my position as a city council member I routinely receive e-mails demanding I vote against vaccine passports. The demand is nonsensical given vaccine passports are not on the table locally. But when I tell people that they do not believe me. And the e-mails keep coming.

I can shake my head at these e-mails and move one. But a city manager getting the same e-mail does not have that luxury. A member of the public has a demand and will not accept the objective facts as an answer. It is a no-win situation. Of course these types of situations are not new; there have always been members of the public who cannot be convinced by rational logic. But I do not recall a time where those who cannot be convinced by facts—I will call them the unconvincable—have been so organized, vocal and durable. I fear the sustained stress of dealing with the unconvincable population is taking a toll on our profession.

As one manager put it, people are asking if their career is really worth it. Why suffer through constant attacks when you can make a good living doing something else? I am most worried that our younger municipal managers will be discouraged to the point of leaving the profession. If this happens, we will be left with a less experienced talent pool during a time when experience is sorely needed.

What can we do about it? Well, I do not think the governing challenges highlighted by the politics of COVID-19 are going away anytime soon. We as a field can produce research and tools to help practitioners in the tasks of governing, but that will not be enough to improve morale. Several practitioners I spoke with brought up the need to build a stronger community of municipal managers. Younger managers need mentorship, a safe place to complain and developed networks of peers facing common challenges. Some of these resources exist through membership organizations, but I am finding many, especially younger folks serving smaller more rural communities, feel less connected to these resources.

Maybe we can do a better job in MPA programs preparing students for the less technical aspects of the job. Maybe we can do a better job of developing and providing mental health resources for government executives. And I know we can do a better job providing professional development resources for early career managers. I know in many places such resources do exist, but more can be done to connect municipal managers to the resources they need.

One of my interview subjects spoke of the need to reset how we teach public administration to aspiring municipal managers. The subject’s blunt assessment was that too much of our curriculum is rooted in a 20th century approach not up to meeting 21st century challenges. I have been thinking about this comment a lot as we return to the classroom this fall. I ask myself—where we are failing and why? Do we need to make tweaks, or, is a wholesale reset indeed what is needed? I do not have answers to these questions yet, but I think they are worth examining as we continue our slog through the COVID-19 crisis and the corrosive politics it has unleashed.

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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2 Responses to The Challenge of the City Manager: Being a Rational Actor in an Irrational Time

  1. Michael Abels Reply

    September 24, 2021 at 6:33 pm

    Until we confront and overcome the national political dynamics where a significant percentage of the population do not trust public or private institutions and the political party representing and guiding them has a designed program to destroy the governing foundation that has historically provided political stability, then non-elected city managers will suffer the same societal dysfunction and distrust experienced by medical experts who advocate public vaccination against COVID.

  2. Dr. David Hamilton Reply

    September 24, 2021 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks for stating the need for updating public administration courses. From experience, too much time is spent on archaic histories and irrelevant theories rather than focusing on today’s real challenges that your article presents.

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