Celebrating Our Heritage, Preparing for Our Future

ICMA has much to celebrate this year: the 100th anniversary of our association and the professionalization of local government management.

ARTICLE | Aug 15, 2014
Archive photo: 1926

ICMA has much to celebrate this year: the 100th anniversary of our association and the professionalization of local government management; the 90th year of the ICMA Code of Ethics; and our members’ century-long commitment to professional development and continuous learning. Each of these events resulted from the development of the council-manager form of government, the blueprint for some of the most radical reforms in democratic governance since the signing of the Constitution or the development of the Federalist Papers.

In December 1914, when eight city managers met in Springfield, Ohio, and formed the City Managers' Association "to promote the efficiency of city managers," there were only 31 cities within the United States with professional managers. Today, roughly half of all U.S. municipalities with populations of 2,500 or greater and over a quarter of U.S. counties operate under this system of local government. More than 150 million Americans—nearly half the U.S. population—live in a community with a professional manager in place. Professional local government management is also prominent in Australia, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and other countries around the world.

Despite the professionalization of local government, our communities continue to grapple with myriad changing forces. During the past year or so, I have discussed these five significant drivers that will influence the future roles and strategies of local governments:

  • The fiscal crisis affecting the federal government and many states, which has created issues surrounding taxes, spending and debt, and increasingly reduced funding to local governments.
  • Demographic changes, which are leading us to become a truly pluralistic, multicultural society.
  • The impact of technology (e.g., social media and “big data”) which, while affording us increased transparency, accountability, and the ability to encourage community engagement among many stakeholders, also means that local officials no longer can control the conversations.
  • Polarized politics, which challenge us to use reasoned compromises and a constructive form of "yes" to move issues forward in an environment in which anyone can say "no" and everyone has a veto.
  • An increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots that threatens to create a new class of people who are unable to fully participate in our economy and for whom hard work may no longer be wholly rewarded.

Additionally, six issues that emerged from ICMA’s review of resident feedback as most important are: jobs and the economy, education, safety, health care, the environment, and overall quality of life (including infrastructure and transportation). All six issues require scale and a multi-sector, multi-disciplinary, and intergovernmental strategy to produce the outcomes that matter most to our communities.

In contrast, as the world has grown more complex, governmental leaders have responded by constructing their organizations to leverage specialization. Today’s local governments have separate departments for police, fire, recreation, engineering, public works, social services, and the like.

But are these top-down, territorial, function-based silos and single-jurisdictional approaches to service delivery consistent with the need for multidisciplinary, multi-sector strategies? How do we take advantage of the enormous power of specialization, yet organize around the issues that matter most to our constituents?

The discussions above raise some interesting questions for the future of the local government management profession. Among the most important is: Will professional managers be the reformers or are they to be reformed?

Achieving success against the backdrop of these major drivers, complex public policy issues, and rapidly changing local conditions will test the leadership capacity of elected and appointed local officials. Local government managers will need to view these challenges from a new perspective, one that separates us from our reliance on commonly held assumptions and leads us to find creative ways to forecast what our communities will look like in the next five to 10 years. Our profession has been challenged before, and I have no doubt that we will continue to respond by helping our communities become places we are proud to call home.

ICMA continues to help local government management professionals achieve this mission by advancing professional management to build sustainable communities that improve people’s lives. Yet, our organizations look much different than they did when those homogeneous eight founding members gathered in Springfield, Ohio, back in 1914.

Today a significant number of women serve as CAOs to our cities, towns, and counties; and there are more individuals from racially, ethnically, globally, and socially diverse backgrounds in the field. Still, there is much work for us as a profession to do.

This evolutionary process is the theme of this month’s PM, which also celebrates its 96th year of publication. The September issue began as a commemorative anniversary insert, but it attracted so many outstanding articles and essays—ranging from the historical to the more reflective—that we deemed it worthy of devoting the entire magazine to the effort.

Thirty authors contributed to this issue, and we thank each and every one of them for taking the time to help ICMA celebrate our past, present, and future. It has been a challenging and amazing journey!

Happy birthday, ICMA, and a salute to professional local government management!


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