Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Fostering Cooperation in Counties: Governing by Cajole: Conversations with County Managers

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Fostering Cooperation in Counties: Governing by Cajole: Conversations with County Managers

Article excerpt


This research looks at how professional county managers cope in a fragmented political structure and is based on feedback data gathered in telephone and personal interviews and focus group sessions with managers. The interviews suggest that managers struggle with the lack of centralized administrative authority and, consequently, some initially struggled in trying to assume an appropriate role to function in county government. The comments reveal that managers place value in a facilitative-participatory style that transcends political actors and departmental staff. The article concludes with directions for future research.


The emerging research on counties underscores how different these governments are from cities (Menzel, 1996). Consequently. county management is a fundamentally different enterprise than city management due to the fragmentation of county government coupled with complex inter-governmental relationships. As a result of these dynamics, county managers face varying degrees of conflict which is significantly different in scope from cities and, in many cases, is beyond their control.

A principal interest here is to offer insights into how county managers cope with conflict to get things done. By pursuing this topic, the authors seek to understand how managers rethink their notions of professional management in making this transition to county governance and how they, in turn, develop strategies to foster cooperation among different political actors.

To fulfill the authors' role, this article contains excerpts from conversations with county managers obtained through surveys and focus group sessions where they discuss their experiences managing county governments.1 Viewed individually, these interviews offer a portrait of individuals attempting to understand their relationship with county commissioners and independent elected officials in a rapidly changing political environment. On the other hand, when viewed more broadly, these interviews suggest that, while managers struggle with a lack of centralized authority, they place value in participative management that transcends organizational fragmentation to foster communication and cooperation among political actors and departmental heads.


A major challenge of county management is the lack of a single accountable voice in county government. County government is very fragmented consisting not only of a Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) but separate officials who are responsible for executing various functions of county government. As chief executives who report to the BOCC, county managers recognize that much of their authority and responsibility (i.e., budget) is shared with separate constitutional officers who are independent and possess strong political constituencies.

Although the county manager form of government seeks to introduce expert administration through the appointment of a chief executive with requisite management skills, in reality county management is an evolving process where managers must groom a facilitative-negotiation style of interaction with elected officials to establish a "quasi-unified administration" structure.

The authors' interviews revealed that county managers had to modify their perception of professional management in order to survive in county government. This phenomenon was exhibited among county managers with a city management background. For example, conversations with county managers illustrated that some of these individuals began their management careers in county government with the assumption that county government embraced centralized authority, problem-solving skills vested in professional managers who exhibit expert knowledge in budgetary and organizational issues, and coordination of effort.

Much of these notions are reinforced in city government as a result of a city charter. Consequently, many county administrators with city management experience expected that counties operated like cities. …

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