Reinventing the Governance in Government: The Next Frontier for City Councils

By Carver, John | Nation's Cities Weekly, January 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

Reinventing the Governance in Government: The Next Frontier for City Councils


Carver, John, Nation's Cities Weekly


City management has made great strides in the last half of this century. But while management of our cities has improved markedly, governance of those same cities has lagged far behind. The fundamental flaw, however, is not in the elected officials, but in the incoherent process all councils have inherited -- unfortunately a process that tradition, public administration texts, and state law continue to impose.

City councils are not alone. Whether in business, nonprofits, or government, the governing board role is the least studied and most poorly conceptualized element of organization. Achieving substantial city council improvement based on the tradition-blessed, familiar wisdom makes it virtually impossible for councils to provide the leadership municipal realities demand.

The "Policy Governance model," a radical redesign I developed twenty years ago builds on the role of city council as owner representative, standing in for constituents as owners -- rather than as customers as is predominantly the case now. Any business in which disgruntled customers must (or are encouraged to) go to the board to be heard is peculiarly designed, indeed. As owner-representatives, the council's role is not to run city government, but to see that government does what it should -- a role analogous to steering rather than rowing as discussed by Osborne and Gaebler -- that is, to govern rather than manage city government.

Put in its simplest form, a city council has an obligation to the "stockholders" to see that government (a) achieves what it should and that it (b) avoids that which is unacceptable. The only way to fulfill that charge effectively requires careful council decisions about (a) what results should come about for which people at what cost ["ends"] and (b) what activities and situations [operational "means"] are off-limits. With these points clear and a monitoring system to assess staff performance with regard to them, a council can responsibly keep its fingers out of the administration of city government, yet be more powerfully in control than is possible now. Without these points clear or without the monitoring system, councils will forever be enticed or frightened back into piecemeal inspection and micro-management. Moreover, when these things are clear, it becomes starkly obvious that individual councillor directives to staff members is not only amateurish practice, but an attack on governance integrity.

Yet traditional city council methods make neither the ends nor the limitations on operational means clear. …

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