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The Governing Advantage of Professionally Managed Municipalities

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 5, 2024

As most reading this undoubtedly know, the council-manager form of government is (at least in part) a reaction to political corruption in U.S. cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The logic behind professional management of local governments is sound. Municipalities are complex organizations, and effectively managing their staffing and finances requires a unique skillset, as well as insulation from partisan politics. Yet the idea of professional management of municipalities is often misunderstood. Critics suggest it is rare, undemocratic or less responsive to the needs of the public. The broader question is, simply, do professionally managed municipalities perform better than those with elected executives?

Of course that question is really not so simple. In a comprehensive review of research on professionally managed municipalities, Jered B. Carr concluded that “evidence exists to support claims of improved performance of the council-manager form of government,” but, “[t]he evidence is not as strong as many advocates likely expect…” Part of the challenge is defining performance. Serving four years on the Common Council of a politically diverse city has taught me that the public wants very different things from their government. Further complicating matters is the heterogenous nature of professionally managed municipalities.

In Wisconsin, for example, there are 190 cities and 415 villages. Of those 190 cities, ten are considered Chapter 64 cities, which means they adopted the city manager form of government via their charter ordinance. However, cities and villages can also choose to create the position of administrator through a local ordinance. The local ordinance option is much more common, and by my most recent count 124 cities and villages have an administrator through the local ordinance option. In total, about 22.2 percent of Wisconsin cities and villages have a professional manager or administrator.

To try to better understand the performance of professionally managed cities and villages I turned to two recent research projects I completed. The first was a 2016 survey of 202 elected council/board members serving 116 Wisconsin cities and villages. I asked a battery of questions regarding respondents’ governing dynamics, and ultimately found evidence of more positive dynamics in professionally managed municipalities. Specifically, council/board members serving professionally managed municipalities were significantly more likely to agree that:

  • Their local government has utilized strategic planning to frame its mission.
  • Their organization has successfully developed clear measures of program/service performance.
  • They view the executive as a full partner in the governing process.
  • Board/Council members do what they say they will do.
  • Board/Council members are open about how they feel about other members’ preferences.

The second project was a 2023 survey of 150 municipal executives serving Wisconsin cities and villages. The main goal of the survey was to measure the state of the local government workforce through a series of questions about turnover, innovation, and local government needs. I found that professional managers were significantly more likely to agree that they have “the opportunity to reward employees…when they do an outstanding job,” while elected executives were statistically more likely to agree that organizational culture and work/life balance “is a barrier to attracting new employees.” In addition, professionally managed cities were more likely to adopt reforms including employee performance pay and employee tuition reimbursement, and to employ diversity recruitment strategies.

Both of these surveys were snapshots of a moment in time. Nonetheless, they support the logic of professional management of municipal governments. At least in Wisconsin, there is evidence that professionally managed cities and villages exhibit more positive governing dynamics, have more attractive organizational cultures and boar a higher rate of HR reform adoption.

Does that mean every municipality should hire an administrator? Of course not. The local political culture, history and needs of the electorate will dictate what form of government works best for each community. However, the evidence regarding professional management should not be discounted. Good government means having a foundational structure that allows government to meet the diverse needs of the people it serves. When done well, professional management can provide a foundation for an effective local government.

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 an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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