Thursday, June 4, 2009

Is it time for a City Administrator?

How would you feel getting another "city leader" without an election? At no additional cost? Sounds too good to be true? Yet this is exactly the scenario that many municipalities across the world enjoy. It requires having a City Administrator who takes on the day-to-day management tasks of running the city government while allowing the elected mayor to focus on strategy, vision, and the political process.

Specifically, a City Administrator would implement policy and deliver services with a commitment to effectiveness and accountability to elected officials, be responsible for managing resources efficiently, and perform according to the professional and ethical standards defined by the field of public administration. City administrators are more inclined to balance details and strategy, and short and and long-term interests. They are grounded in policy analysis and implementation, law and regulation, and in the accumulated knowledge and experience of their public service career.

In some ways the retiring City Engineer and Director of Public Works, Larry Nelson, or the former Director of Planning & Community & Economic Development, George Austin, fulfilled the role of the City Administrator informally by virtue of skill, ability, authority, and longevity. One could even claim they fulfilled the informal role of the City Administrator because the size of our city government has such a latent need.

A City Admistrator is sometimes mistakenly compared to a City Manager. The latter belongs to a governance model where there is no mayor. Instead a City Manager is hired by and reports to the elected City Council. In some cases the President of the Council may serve as a "Mayor." There are too many variations to list here. The key point is that I am discussing the Administrator model that includes an elected mayor. Besides, Madison unsuccessfully tried the City Manager model between 1947 and 1951.

For those who want to critique the addition of a City Administrator as another level of bureaucracy, you may want to read up on the history of how this function came into existence. In the early part of the 20th Century it was the the progressive movement in Wisconsin that promoted city managers or administrators as a means to break up the political machines (and parties) that dominated City Hall to the detriment of the citizens. The intent was to expand the civil service code of conduct within local governments by promoting transparent standards of fairness and due process, and reducing the favoritism and arbitrary treatment of citizens.

As our City faces a number of major reorganizations in the near future, we have the opportunity of rethinking our internal governance model. We could create an Office of Management and Organization, headed by a City Administrator, for example, that would fulfill many of the functions currently performed by mayoral aides. While I am not suggesting that the aides aren't doing their job well or that a Mayor shouldn't have any appointed aides, newly elected mayors are more inclined to use these aide positions as a reward to campaign workers who may not have the grounding in public policy and analysis and/or do their learning on the job. The prerequiste for a City Administrator would be to bring the required knowledge, skills, and ability to the job.

As mayors enter their second terms and previous campaign workers move on, it seems the second round of aides often are selected based on their professional experience and competence. Perhaps second-term mayors have learned that governance is more than just being politically savvy. City administrators provide the best of both worlds. They offer professional continuity while being accountable to elected officials beyond the election cycles of local politics.

When should such a transition occur, how shall it be paid for, and what could it look like? I suggest when a new Mayor is elected, reduce the current number of aides by two or three and use the salary savings to pay for the incoming City Administrator and the newly established office. We could also look into consolidating other City functions and positons into the new office. One scenario could include integrating the Office of Organizational Development & Training into the City Administrator's office.

Such an office would, among other tasks, begin to re-emphasize training and development across the City to encourage excellent customer service, re-ignite the continuous improvement efforts needed during good and especially bad budget times, integrate the current environmental sustainability efforts (The Natural Step model) across all departments (since TNS and the continuous improvement model share many of the same methods and tools), and offer elected officials, including the City Council, more data and support.

The complexities of governance during a tighter budget era requires a rethinking of how the City of Madison should be governed. So why not get more for the the buck? Let's free up the Mayor from daily governance issues and allow him or her advocate for the electoral mandate. Let's hire a City Administrator to implement the mandate with consistency, expertise, professionalism, and an eye towards continuous improvement.

On a side note, my interest in excellence in civil service comes from my own experience as a former civil servant at the Federal level, my Masters in Public Administration, being a member of the American Society for Public Administration, having used the City of Madison as a case study for my Ph.D. dissertation research in the mid nineties, being an active board member in the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, and owning a private organization development firm in Madison.

More importantly, my interest in this topic is based on my present work as an elected alder who perceives that we need to improve our local government structure and operations to effectively manage our human and capital resources during tougher economic times.