Contemporary Challenges in Local Government: Evolving Roles and Responsibilities, Structures, and Processes


Publication: 2013-08-31


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:Owen Ambur


Name:American Society for Public Administration



  • Public Administration ReviewVolume 73, Issue 4, pages 567-574, July/August 2013

  • Wiley Online LibraryArticle first published online: 6 MAY 2013, DOI: 10.1111/puar.12059 © 2013 by The American Society for Public Administration

  • John NalbandianCo-Author -- John Nalbandian is a faculty member in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. E-mail:

  • Robert O'Neill, Jr.Co-Author -- Robert O'Neill, Jr., is executive director of the International City/County Management Association. E-mail:

  • J. Michael WilkesCo-Author -- J. Michael Wilkes is city manager of Olathe, Kansas. E-mail:

  • Amanda KaufmanCo-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:

  • International City/County Management AssociationAdministrative 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 OfficersThe 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 ManagersAmong 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 ManagersProfessional 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 ProfessionalsLocal 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 ManagersToday, 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 RosenauJames 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 communities.

  • Pew Research CenterFailure 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, KansasWe 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 InnovationWe 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 TeamThe 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 ForceTo 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.