City management

Essential skills for the responsibilities of city management

Local government takes many forms throughout different parts of the U.S. Some cities and towns will model their municipal structures after the federal government’s multi-branch form, with legislative, executive and judicial segments, while others – not infrequently those in smaller or more rural areas – opt to have a board of elected selectmen and selectwomen that implements measures voted on by public referendum. Some even choose to run themselves strictly by public meeting, enacting the most literal form of democracy, though this is usually only the case in the tiniest, most sparsely populated towns.

One constant through almost all of these governmental models, though, is the presence of a town or city manager, or a similarly titled individual who carries out identical responsibilities. This professional implements the nuts-and-bolts processes that keep a municipality functioning on a day-to-day basis, ranging from the implementation of the council’s latest budget proposals to the initiation of community service-focused policing procedures. Perhaps the best way to summarize the duties of city managers would be to posit that in governments where mayors are elected as the voice of the people, city managers are appointed to act as the people’s hands, so to speak.

Those pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree with the endgame of a career in government will find that their studies can help them glean the skills necessary to serve as a city manager, particularly due to the concentration’s focus on practical execution over policy. Here, we’ll examine the primary tenets of this public service position, as well as the abilities essential to perform it successfully.

Overview of city management

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Dayton, Ohio, became the first American municipality to enact the council-manager form of government in 1913. The National Short Ballot Foundation, a special interest group focused on limiting the size of local and state governments, proposed the idea not long before that. In the century that followed Dayton’s adoption of city management as a governing style, it spread all over the world.

Though the specifics of city managers’ duties and responsibilities will differ somewhat between nearly all cities or towns, the explanation of the position on the official city website of Cambridge, Massachusetts, works as an effective summary of what it entails in most cases: City managers and their direct subordinates are “responsible for providing leadership to and administration of all city departments and services, recommend policies and programs to the city council, and implement council legislation.”

In cities that are legislatively governed by councils, managers essentially function as the chief executive even if the city also publicly elects a mayor. The mayor is by no means powerless, but ultimate authority lies with the council and with the manager as its operating arm. If no mayor is elected (rare, but not unheard of), the city manager simply is the government’s leading executive, but is likely more limited in his or her duties by the councilors. According to The Balance, managers are typically found through recruiting firms that specialize in filling administrative roles, and are hired only via the council’s approval. While the process isn’t hidden from local media, councils do generally endeavor to keep lists of the most qualified candidates secret – if the list leaks, the process can become problematically politicized or otherwise adversely affected.

A diversity of understanding

City managers can come from a wide variety of different educational and professional backgrounds. Some may have been directors of finance for nonprofit advocacy organizations, while others will have come up through the ranks of law enforcement to reach administrative positions and then transitioned into a government role that is more direct. Their prior education usually reflects whichever path they eventually chose before being managers, as The Balance notes. In nearly all cases, however, these men and women have operated in some capacity of public service prior to pursuing city management.

A diverse base of knowledge and experience is ideal for this role, seeing as it will require its practitioners to oversee multiple civil service departments – everything from public works and education to policing strategies and zoning ordinances. Conversely, being knowledgeable about some aspects of administration but leaving others solely to their department heads is ill-advised. This can lead to oversights that end up impugning the quality of city services, such as a school budget shortfall that arises due to supervisory neglect.

Balancing policy (and politics) with administration

Because a city manager is not an elected official but an appointed one, he or she should not be specifically beholden to any voting bloc or special interest group. The council that has appointed the official is, of course, made up of elected individuals, and is thus likely to exert some political pressure. Nevertheless, success within the profession – and, as pointed out in Britannica, one of its central, most positively cited attributes – involves creating a unity of purpose throughout the city’s government, and part of that requires making administrative decisions for the greater good that may initially be politically unpopular.

It’s also extremely important to keep policy and administration simultaneously separate and connected. While administrative personnel wouldn’t function without policy to enact, becoming overly entangled in policymaking – or with policymakers, who are not uncommonly better suited to theorizing than to execution – can be quite detrimental. It’s also fair to say that administration shouldn’t discourage policymakers from being idealistic and taking risks, as long as the measures being proposed are feasible for implementation.

Making plans (and budgets)

According to the Houston Chronicle, budgeting constitutes a major aspect of any city or town manager’s duties. He or she may not crunch the exact numbers, but must nonetheless have an understanding of how fiscal resources are distributed that goes considerably beyond the rudimentary. Anticipating possibilities that aren’t immediately apparent, such as public health crises or dramatic increases in crime, is also involved in budgeting. This does not require predicting the future – rather it involves closely studying societal trends and developing contingencies for many scenarios.

Beyond dollars and cents, city managers must have the ability to properly plot out how human capital will be allocated. This task includes but is not limited to determining hiring priorities, monitoring the performances of direct subordinates as well as all high-level public servants, devising community betterment initiatives and examining how well businesses fare within the city limits.

Transparency through public presence

A great deal of a city manager’s job is done in municipal conference rooms and the offices of other department heads. Yet this doesn’t mean he or she stays invisible and unaccountable to the public. The Chronicle pointed out that managers are often present at council meetings and community gatherings, and make themselves available to meetings with the public for at least a certain portion of their workweeks.

Ultimately, being a government administrator relies on getting things done, and not swaying to political pressure. But to best represent a municipality’s citizens, city managers need to hear from the public and affirm their commitment to the public’s well-being.

Learn More

The School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark, provider of the online Master of Public Administration, is accredited by the NASPAA. Before a program becomes eligible for accreditation by the NASPAA, its parent school must be recognized by a regional, national or international agency. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education and is a member of the Association of American Universities.

Recommended Readings


Filter By Program