What City Managers Can Learn from County Management

By Manahan, Jack | Public Management, March 1994 | Go to article overview

What City Managers Can Learn from County Management


Manahan, Jack, Public Management


Comparing two Management Positions

Discussions on the future of the council-manager plan heard during ICMA's 1993 conference in Nashville, Tennessee, revealed an interesting contradiction. On one hand, many people expressed alarm at the increasing number of communities that have abandoned or are considering abandoning the council-manager plan. At the same time, however, others noted that professional government in counties seems to be growing. Counties are being perceived as a "growth market" in which to expand the profession of local government administration.

Professional County Government Is Growing

According to ICMA figures, counties indeed have become a growth market for professional managers. In the 1986-1987 edition of WHO'S WHO in Local Government Management, only about 250 counties in the United States were recognized as having a form of government that includes an appointed chief administrative officer. By the 1993-1994 edition, the number of recognized counties had grown to 331--nearly a 30 percent increase in seven years. More revealing, however, is the fact that more than 80 percent of all county recognitions have occurred since 1970.

How can professional government in counties be growing while cities are abandoning the plan? The main reason, I believe, is that professionals working in county governments have been willing to consider adapting the plan to changing circumstances and to the increasing blurring of the line between policy and administration. Many city managers have lost sight of the goal of increasing professionalism in local governments, focusing instead on retention of the council-manager plan. If managers pride themselves on being agents of change, then they must personally be willing to change.

City management professionals (these include towns, villages, boroughs, and so forth) who have made the jump to county management are discovering that a county with a county administrator is not just like a city with a city manager. Fundamental differences in governance, organization, and attitudes affect the practice of professional government in counties. City management professionals who fail to understand these differences are in for a brief--albeit exciting--experience in county government. And if this happens, professional county government also may fail to expand because it will be unable to show improvements in operation and management of the organization.

Many who aspire to professional careers in public administration view work for a county as a backwater assignment that may hurt rather than help a career record. Common impressions I have gathered from administrators who have not worked in a county include concerns about all those amateur elected officials instead of professionals, blue-haired ladies running ancient bookkeeping machines in lieu of modern technology, and rampant pork-barrel politics. In fact, these are stereotypes that do a disservice to the many hard-working professionals in county governments across the country.

After working for six years for Johnson County, Kansas, a suburban county of 350,000 near Kansas City, in 1989 I became the village manager of Forest Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb of about 25,000. In moving from county to city management, I have of course encountered a few surprises. In general, however, I have found that my experience in county government prepared me well for the job of city manager, and I would like to share some of the insights that city managers can gain from counties.

Keep Communication Channels Open

There are many lessons to be learned, but the most important ones fall into two basic categories. First, communication between staff and members of the governing body is crucial. Certainly, the line between politics and administration--if there ever was one--is becoming more blurred. But communication between the governing body and the organization is important in any entity. City managers must not become self-righteous about the manager's prerogative or try too hard to manage or limit the flow of information from the organization to the governing body. …

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