Contemporary Challenges in Local Government: Evolving Roles and Responsibilities, Structures, and Processes
The purpose of this article is to stimulate conversations around contemporary leadership challenges in local government. The
challenges that we identify represent adaptations in local government roles and responsibilities, structures, and processes
in response to a changing local government environment. Most prominent in that environment is the increasingly difficult task
of connecting what is "politically acceptable" and "administratively sustainable" -- politics and administration. The difficulty
is accentuated as the widespread trends of administrative modernization and the politics of identity are experienced locally.
We begin by describing the forces of modernization and the politics of identity and how their juxtaposition widens the gap
between what is politically acceptable and administratively sustainable. Then, we briefly discuss bridging the gap as the
fundamental prerequisite for effective governance. That is followed by identification and discussion of how local governments
are attempting to bridge the gap and the challenges encountered. We conclude with practical and conceptual guidance for the
local government professional administrator.
Three contemporary leadership challenges face local governments today. The first encourages department heads to more actively
work the intersection between political and administrative arenas. The second promotes collaborative work, synchronizing city
and county boundaries with problems that have no jurisdictional homes. The third argues that citizen engagement is no longer
optional -- it is imperative -- and that connecting engagement initiatives to traditional political values and governing processes
is an important mark of successful community building. These three leadership challenges stem from a widening gap between
the arenas of politics and administration -- that is, between what is politically acceptable in public policy making and what
is administratively sustainable. The gap is fueled by conflicting trends experienced locally and common internationally. Failure
to bridge this gap between political acceptability and administrative sustainability results in decreasing legitimacy for
governing institutions and increasing challenges... The insights on contemporary leadership challenges facing local governments
that emerged from this research provide a foundation for public administration scholars and practitioners to further explore
the future manager's roles and responsibilities, as well as structures and processes of governance. As the base of research
on these contemporary leadership challenges grows, we anticipate that further guidance can be provided to local government
professionals who face these challenges in their daily work.
Name:American Society for Public Administration
- Public Administration Review: Volume 73, Issue 4, pages 567-574, July/August 2013
- Wiley Online Library: Article first published online: 6 MAY 2013, DOI: 10.1111/puar.12059 © 2013 by The American Society for Public Administration
- John Nalbandian: Co-Author -- John Nalbandian is a faculty member in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas.
- Robert O'Neill, Jr.: Co-Author -- Robert O'Neill, Jr., is executive director of the International City/County Management Association. E-mail: email@example.com
- J. Michael Wilkes: Co-Author -- J. Michael Wilkes is city manager of Olathe, Kansas. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Amanda Kaufman: Co-Author -- Amanda Kaufman is assistant to the city manager in Marion, Iowa, and served as an ICMA Local Government Management
Fellow with the city of Olathe, Kansas. E-mail: email@example.com
- International City/County Management Association: Administrative Modernization and the Politics of Identity -- In the mid-2000s, the International City/County Management Association
(ICMA) launched a project to identify practices that professional local government administrators bring to their communities.
- Professional Local Government Administrators
- Chief Administrative Officers: The findings reinforced the chief administrative officer's role working in and bridging the gap between the arenas of politics
and administration (Keene et al. 2007).
- City Managers: Among the six practices identified, one in particular conveys an expectation that city and county managers should become more
involved with community partners, including elected officials, to facilitate community and enable democracy: Professionals
help build community and support democratic and community values.
- Elected Officials
- Professional Managers: Professional managers help build community by facilitating partnerships among sectors, groups and individuals. They work with
informal groups of people as well as established groups, organizations, and other governing institutions.
- Local Government Professionals: Local government professionals -- through their values, training, and experience --support democratic values and work effectively
toward inclusion, accountability, and transparency. Developing effective partnerships with elected officials and generating
community engagement are as important as the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery in helping to build a sense
of community (Keene et al. 2007, 38).
- County Managers: Today, the professional manager's role in policy making and community building is widely accepted, yet role expectations once
again have garnered attention. Contemporary city and county managers find their facilitating or bridging role in community
building complicated by two contemporary forces that we refer to as "administrative modernization" and the "politics of identity"
(Nalbandian 2005). These forces extend well beyond individual communities, informing discussions of international relations.
- James Rosenau: James Rosenau suggests their breadth and significance: "the best way to grasp world affairs today requires viewing them as
an endless series of distant proximities in which the forces pressing for greater globalization and those inducing greater
localization interactively play themselves out" (2003, 4). We contend that understanding these trends is critical to comprehending
the serious challenge posed by bridging the gap between political acceptability and administrative sustainability in local
- Pew Research Center: Failure to make the connection means that public concerns are unattended or addressed ineffectively, and lack of trust and
legitimacy in government results (Pew Research Center 2012).
- Olathe, Kansas: We employed a variety of qualitative approaches to identify the challenges. These included in-depth discussions with the leadership
team in the city of Olathe, Kansas; electronic consultation with a professional network of local government administrators
and academicians created when the ICMA challenged its members to articulate the value that professional management contributes
to local jurisdictions (Keene et al. 2007); and the personal and professional experiences of the team of authors, which incorporates
a wide range of academic and professional local government perspectives.
- Alliance for Innovation: We drew on the experiences of the Olathe, Kansas, leadership team to develop our leadership agenda. Engagement with the city
of Olathe was stimulated by the Alliance for Innovation's request to identify contemporary challenges facing an innovative
Midwestern city, and the Alliance suggested that we focus on Olathe. At the Alliance for Innovation's Big Ideas Conference
in Fort Collins, Colorado, in the fall of 2011, we shared our findings alongside those from San Jose, California, and local
governments in North Carolina.
- Olathe Leadership Team: The leadership team in Olathe consisted of the city manager, assistant city manager, eight department heads, and 11 of their
immediate staff, including division managers. There were 21 people on the team in this city of approximately 125,000, located
in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Olathe is a suburban community with a history of growth. It is accustomed to professional
government, has a stable council, and is regarded nationally among local government professionals and academicians as innovative.
In the last decade, the city has seen significant growth in its immigrant population and, like other local jurisdictions,
has found itself in a retrenchment mode for a couple of years. We met with the leadership team on three occasions; the leadership
challenges were identified as a result of these meetings. At the first meeting, we suggested to team members that bridging
the gap between political acceptability and administrative sustainability is the fundamental prerequisite for effective governance.
We asked team members to think about challenges that they face bridging this gap, and we agreed that the challenges could
be grouped into three broad categories: roles and responsibilities, structures, and processes of governance. On the second
and third occasions, a discussion was held with the leadership team further refining the challenge areas. Following these
meetings and a literature review, the final versions of three challenges were established. We then asked leadership team members
to provide written examples of the challenges, which they provided to the authors by e-mail.
- ICMA Professionalism Task Force: To test the validity of these three challenges among local government professionals more generally, we subjected them to national
scrutiny. We invited a select group of 75 city and county managers, drawn from an ICMA professionalism task force (Keene et
al. 2007), to comment on each of the leadership challenges.