What’s Up with Oshkosh’s Form of Government Anyway?

I watched last week’s Oshkosh mayoral and council candidate forum with some interest (you can too here: http://oshkoshmedia.org/ ). One question asked of candidates was regarding the council-manager form of government. I’ve heard this question asked in other settings, often in the form of a complaint: The city manager did (insert policy/administration decision here) and I can’t even vote them out! In addition to my service as a council member, I train future city managers (and other public and nonprofit sector leaders) in my day job. As such, I thought I’d answer a few questions about our form of government.

Is it rare in Wisconsin?

No. Nollenberger and Simmons (2016) show that over 70 percent of Wisconsin cities have a professional manager of some kind. According to the ICMA, the council-manager form is also the most prevalent form of government nationally. Strong mayor systems (where the mayor has executive powers) are clustered in very small, and very large cities.

What is the point?

The City of Oshkosh has over 500 employees implementing an operating budget of over $140 million. A city manager is a trained and experienced executive with the skills to manage a complex public organization. An elected mayor may or may not have such a skillset.

What is the core premise?

The core premise of the council-manager system is to separate the policy function from the administrative function. Policies reflect the priorities of the electorate as expressed by the city council. Hence, the city council should decide what the priorities are for the city manager. 

The administrative function involves implementation, or, the how. For example, one of the priorities of the Oshkosh city council is to address issues of homelessness in our community. We get to set the goal, but the expectation is that the city manager will form and execute the specific plan. 

Shorter: The city council decides, the city manager does.

Separating the policy function from the administrative function ensures that the will of the people is voiced, but also that the government has the competency to actually implement the will of the people. Done right, it prevents micro-managing from the council, allows for long-term planning, and takes day-to-day politics out of the task of running the organization. 

 Is it perfect?

No. Sometimes the boundaries between policy and administration are not so clear. There are times where elected officials have specific expertise that warrants more of an administrative function. There are also times where political leadership is necessary from a hired city manager. There are often times that the council and manager disagree about the scope of policy and administrative functions.  

How to make it work?

In my experience, the most important thing is for all actors to gain a common understanding of the boundaries between policy and administration. This means the city manager knows their role, and that the city council knows their role. The specifics will differ by locale, but what matters is the premise. The annual evaluation of the city manager, as well as the commitment to long-term planning via a strategic plan, is the vehicle by which to achieve common understanding of roles.

Would you support changing our government form?

Ok, this one is personal. No. I do not support changing our form of government. I have confidence in the idea of professional city management generally, and in our implementation of it specifically. The performance of our government can always be improved, and on that I have ideas and freely share them, but I see no reason why changing government form would improve our government’s performance.  

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Thinking about the perilous state of the PA job market

Last week a series of tweets from the always wise Dr. Jessica Sowa caught my attention. Dr. Sowa tweeted:

“The market is going to be crap for a couple of years. When people are applying for Assistant Professor positions from government jobs they got out of their PhDs, let’s not do the usually BS/ can they hack it in academia thing, cool?”

“Admit it–we are snobs about this (don’t lie to me even if you lie to yourself). We want people to come straight from their PhDs but it may not be possible now. So let’s have some collective thinking about this and try to be cool for the next couple of years.”

As I have written before, my level of ignorance to academia was super high when I started. This was mostly my fault. I did not ask the right questions because my path was atypical. I did not anticipate an academic career, was never funded as a PhD student, worked full time through the process, and ultimately saw earning a PhD as an opportunity to advance my career in public policy. Due to some good advice, and some luck, I landed a job that worked for myself and my family.

But, I quickly learned that what I thought was my greatest asset as a PA academic, my practitioner experience, was seen as a liability by some. To be honest, I learned this a bit earlier when a member of my dissertation committee would not write me a letter of recommendation for an academic position, basically telling me that was not my trajectory. I get that these were choices I made. Everyone in academia has their own path, and really, we all can point to things in our experience that make us atypical.

Which brings me back to Dr. Sowa’s tweets. Right now, the harsh job market realities are being forced on new PhDs, it is not a matter of choice or ability. I totally agree with Dr. Sowa’s call for some collective rethinking. What should that look like? Well just my opinion, but, here are some questions I have:

  • Can we make it the norm to spend time as a practitioner during an academic career? For most of us, the incentives make moving back and forth between the academy and practice impossible. I think it would be helpful for the relevance of our field, and to practice, if we encouraged a back and forth. It would also make it normal to enter the field with a few years of non-academic experience.
  • Can we make more space for practitioner research in tenure decisions? I know some places already do this, but what if it was the norm?
  • Can we count years of practitioner experience toward the tenure clock? This one may be hard, and there would be a lot to think through, but it would shift our thinking.

I am thinking a lot about what comes after Covid. Our universities and our PA programs will be changed, how can we work to make sure they are changed for the better?

Week Two

Well that was a long week. It was fascinating to see people go from taking things kind of seriously, to really seriously, to whatever this is.  I say whatever this is because I, like everyone else, am uncertain about what comes next.

I wonder if (and really when) my wife will get sick.  She is a frontline health worker and it seems inevitable.  How will we manage this?  Will we all get sick at the same time, or will there be waves of illness in our house? How long will we be down?  That may sound a bit fatalistic, but I think it is practical for all of us to have a plan.

Selfishly I wonder how this impacts the April 7th election.  I know running around major intersections with my yard sign affixed to a broom handle was not my initial campaign strategy, but here we are.

I worry about local businesses.  We are ordering out and being supportive, but how do they survive this?  How do their employees pay their bills?  What will an aid package look like for them, and what will be the human toll in the meantime?

Mostly this is all just so weird.  We take the rhythms of daily life for granted until they are disrupted. Here in week two I find myself adjusting to this new reality, but how long will it last, and how can others less fortunate than I adjust?   I am able to stay home, work, and care for my kids.  Others are not in the same boat.

The one thing I know for sure is that the task ahead will be great.  It will test us all. Stay safe everyone.

Should I Be Worried?

I look outside and everything seems normal.  My kids are playing. Inside my wife is painting our family room. I am getting ready to make dinner and thinking about the work week ahead. It seems like a normal Sunday on the surface. But this is not normal.

I went to the grocery store and they were out of bread, eggs, and toilet paper. Aside from maybe salt at the end of winter, I do not recall having to worry about shortages of basic goods.  Should I worry about shortages of basic goods? It seems we all need to relax, but CNN is telling me that interest rates are zero and we have started quantitative easing.  Should I worry?

I am lucky that I am a tenured professor.  My classed were moved online, and the kids’ school was cancelled, but I can be home with them.  But my wife is a nurse practitioner who’s day will not consist of hunkering down.  Should we worry?

I am running for city council and do not know if I should be knocking on doors.  We have a debate tomorrow night that is still on.  Is that a good idea?  Should I worry?

My most level-headed friends that were pretty relaxed about this a couple days ago seem less relaxed today.  If they are worried, should I be worried?

This is all just so scary and surreal.

Being at a Regional Comprehensive University in PA

The other day I tweeted that I needed to be more assertive about getting on an editorial board this year.  Someone asked me, quite reasonably, why I want to be on the board?  When I thought about it, my desire is really a function to show that being at a regional comprehensive university does not preclude you from making a research impact.  I find the longer I work at a non-big-name institution the more I am motivated to demonstrate that it is not some kind of career death sentence.

I am admittedly a bit fixated on this issue.  Early in my academic career I would often have well-meaning colleagues tell me I have to move if I want to be successful.  I had not so well-meaning colleagues very obviously dismiss me because of my affiliation.  I had strange conversations where people asked me why I did not teach at a R1.  Honestly I get it.  Perhaps I am a bit of an outlier, and really it is flattering when I have well-meaning colleagues suggest job opportunities to me.

But, it is important to me to not only have a successful academic career, but to have a successful academic career where I am.  No, I did not go to one of the top ranked Ph.D. programs, but I use what I learned in that program every day.  Whatever the rankings say, I was prepared to succeed.  I do not have Ph.D. students, but I have MPA students that are smart, committed, and making a difference in their communities.  Yes, I have to teach a 4-3, but you know, it has helped me hone my skills in the classroom and establish great relationships with students.  No, I do not much travel and research support, but when I look at outcomes, i.e. conferences attended and research produced, I am doing fine.

I am one of the lucky ones, despite ups and downs along the way, the job market worked out well for me.  I share all of this because I think it is important for students and early career students to know there are many paths to success.  It is so easy to get caught up in the rankings game and perhaps miss a great opportunity.  It is also important that we keep our field diverse, there is so much talent in so many places; we suffer as a field if we ignore or dismiss that talent.

So we shall see if I ever get on an editorial board (and if I do if I regret it!).  But I will keep doing my part to contribute to the field in any way I can.  And I will of course spread the word about all the great things happening in our field…at universities of all types.

Where Does My Heart Lie?

I have had several great conversations this week about my city council run.  A question/comment that keeps coming up is the importance of not being seen as just some expert on local government, that I need to show where my heart lies.  Now I love the nuts and bolts of government.  I love budgeting.  I love finding new ways to connect government with those it serves.  I like statutes.  I like numbers.  Guilty as charged.

But where does my heart lie?  I mentioned I like numbers, here are some:

  • 18.2% – That is the percentage of Oshkosh residents living below the poverty line.
  • 4,178 – That is the number of Oshkosh public school students living in low-income households (42.2% of the district).
  • 1,553 – That is the number of Oshkosh public school students with disabilities.
  • 0 – That is the number of Black 8th graders in Oshkosh who scored proficient on the state English and Language Arts Exam last year.
  • 31 – That is the number of drug overdose deaths in Winnebago County in 2017.

But it is the numbers I don’t have that really scare me:

  • How many people in Oshkosh are insecure in their homes tonight?
  • How many people in Oshkosh are currently experiencing domestic abuse?
  • How many people in Oshkosh are struggling with addiction?
  • How many people in Oshkosh are currently experiencing discrimination based on their race or sexual orientation?
  • How many people in Oshkosh are struggling with mental illness?
  • How many people in Oshkosh are currently underemployed, or worried about providing for their basic needs?
  • How many people, today in Oshkosh, have needs and struggles that I do not even know about?

I embrace the boring parts of governing because good government is usually boring.  And it will take good government to make Oshkosh an even better place to live.  Grandstanding and petty politics won’t help us meet these challenges.  It will take hard work, inclusivity, collaboration, and innovative thinking.

I define success in this role as me leaving office having established:

  • A performance dashboard tied to our strategic plan that empowers us to make progress on Oshkosh’s most pressing issues.
  • An accountability statement that helps a divided council function as one.
  • An interactive budget document and platform that gives every resident a clear idea of where their tax dollar is going and why.
  • An intersectoral task force that empowers us to break down silos and achieve common goals. Goal number one is addressing our racial achievement gaps.  That is not a school district problem, it is an Oshkosh problem.

I know embrace the boring is not a good campaign slogan, but I proudly do it because my heart lies with those numbers and those questions.

Am I too Professorial to Serve on City Council?

Last Spring I applied for the open Oshkosh city council position but did not get it.  During the application process I gave a short presentation on my qualifications to the other council members.  I was told by some folks in the know that I came off a bit too professorial. It is reasonable feedback, my day job is in fact a professor of public administration.  But what does it mean to come off as too professorial?

I hear that critique as code for, A) He’s too detached, B) He’s never had a real job, C) He only knows what is in books about government, and D) He thinks he knows everything because he has a Ph.D. Here are my responses to each critique:

He’s too detached

My interest in serving on city council flows directly from my experience serving the community.  My service on the Plan Commission has given me a unique appreciation for the need to balance economic development with good land-use decisions.  Every two weeks I get to meet with a wonderful group of people and make consequential decisions regarding the future of Oshkosh.  It is a real privilege, and has been a great learning experience.  Every month I get to attend meetings of the Long-Range Finance Committee.  This might seem less exciting than Plan Commission, but it gives me firsthand experience in dealing with the city’s finances.  I also have the privilege of serving as the President of my Neighborhood Association, a position that connects me with the unique needs of neighborhoods, and has taught me that what neighborhoods want and need is not always the same as what the overall City wants and needs.  It too is a learning experience.

Less formal but no less important are the non-official things I do in Oshkosh (i.e. the fun stuff!).  Chatting with people after church, battling it out on the softball diamond or the tennis court, or simply talking to people while fishing (hard and soft water of course)…that is the good stuff.  The reason I’m running for office is because I love the people of Oshkosh, it is a great place to live work and play, and I want to keep it that way.

He’s never had a real job

I have a Ph.D. in Urban Studies.  This is true.  But I earned that degree while pursuing a successful career in public policy.  I worked full-time as a Researcher, a Vice-President of Operations, and a Research Director at two Milwaukee-area nonprofits while attending graduate school at night.  My career exposed me to politics, state and local government, and the real challenges facing Wisconsin communities.  More importantly, my career helped pay the bills while my wife and I started our family.  I made a conscience choice to switch careers after finishing school, and it is a choice I am glad I made, as Oshkosh is a great place to be.

He only knows what is in books about government

Those who cannot do, teach.  We have all heard the cliché.  Here is what you may now know about the program I teach in.  Our classes are all on Saturday because almost all of our students are working full-time in government and the nonprofit sector.  Yes, we have textbooks, but much of my teaching is applied work directly connected to the real challenges facing government in Wisconsin.  Public administration is an applied field, meaning my classes are designed to have a real-world impact, and to help students advance their careers.  If I get to serve, I will bring this applied expertise to my position.  Expertise alone does not make me qualified to serve, but it is an asset I bring to the table.

He thinks he knows everything because he has a Ph.D.

I know nothing!  Ok, I know some things.  I have hard skills in budgeting, data analysis, policy analysis, performance measurement, board governance, and Wisconsin government.  These areas of expertise are my day job.  They help pay the bills.  I think my local government expertise is a unique attribute that I can bring to the council.  I think that is a good thing.  But I do not think this qualifies me to serve as a council member.

I do not know everything, but I do know how to listen, and how to communicate.  I know that serving as a council member means representing everyone in Oshkosh, which requires listening and communication. I know that Oshkosh’s greatest asset is its people. We are diverse in age, race, ideology, and even in our values.  But we are all here because Oshkosh is a great place to live, and we all have a stake in the future of Oshkosh.  I want your support because you share my vision of Oshkosh For All.  What does that vision mean?

  • Every Oshkosh resident has a stake in Oshkosh’s success
  • Every Oshkosh resident has a right to be heard
  • Every Oshkosh resident has a right to know what their government is doing, why they are doing it, and whether they are doing it well

For more specifics of how I will implement this vision, to www.OshkoshForAll.com!

Does the UW System Need A Business Leader at the Helm?

Should the UW System look for a business leader to be its next president?  John Torinus poses this idea as a means to transform the UW system, arguing that “Business leaders are more inclined to be clear-eyed and hard-nosed about the need for strategic turn-arounds or transformations.”  Full disclosure, I am an employee of the UW system and hence have skin in the game, but Torinus’s premise is faulty.  The let’s run government like a business trope is built on an incomplete understanding of both the public and private sectors.

First, the assumption that private sector is more effective and efficient by virtue of being the private sector is plain wrong.  Private businesses fail all the time.  While the profit-motive gives private business a clear goal, i.e. maximizing profit, having a clear goal is no guarantee of success.  I am not reflexively opposed to a business leader running the UW system, but I do reject the premise that the system can only be transformed by a business leader.  A poorly matched leader will hurt the system regardless of where they come from.

Second, public sector shareholders are an open group (everyone owns a share), as opposed to the closed group of shareholders in a private corporation.  As such, the leader of the UW system must take into account equity, transparency, and minority rights in ways that a private business leader does not.  A university system will do things that lack clear economic rationale as a result of being a public entity.  This is not a weakness, but a key attribute of being an organization serving the public at-large.

Third, the UW system (and any public organization) lacks the clear market signals of a private corporation.  Failure is not always obvious because the stream of public and customer funding will continue (to some degree) in both good and bad times.  Leadership in a system without clear market signals requires a very different skillset than leadership over a private corporation.  To say nothing of the unique dual task of managing over a complicated bureaucracy populated with employees enjoying strong job protections, while at the same time being managed by an unpredictable politics.

Fourth, and this is the public management professor in me, but it drives me nuts that the very specific and well-developed field of public administration is ignored in these calls for running the UW system like a business.  Running a public organization is a very specific challenge that requires a very specific skillset.  We have assets throughout the system who are nationally-known experts on new public management, public governance, public budgeting, performance measurements, social equity, and so much more that is directly relevant to the business of running the UW system.  Assuming a business leader is more apt to be clear-eyed about what is needed is at odds with so much work being done right here in the UW system!

To be clear, I do not think picking a private sector leader to lead the UW system is an inherently bad idea any more than I think it is a good idea.  But I do know that assuming positive reform is only possible with a business leader is wrong.  My hope is that the next leader of our system is a good fit regardless of where they come from, and that the talent and expertise in our system is utilized as the asset it is.

Rethinking the UW System

I was recently asked on twitter what a restructuring of the UW system would look like.  I did not have an immediate answer (and still lack specifics), but I wanted to start by articulating some values.  I find it helpful to articulate broad values as a first step toward creating specific policies.  Failure to do that results in confused policies that will conflict with one another.  So what should be the dominant values in a restructured UW system?

  • The Wisconsin Idea. This is an easy one because it already defined as the idea “that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.”  I like this because it clearly states that part of our jobs as faculty and administrators in a public system is to be outward facing.  It also precludes us from existing solely for job training.
  • Academic Excellence. If we are putting out a sub-par product for our customers, what is the point of our existence?
  • Specialization. It is ok for some universities to have strengths and offerings that others do not have. It is ok for there to be multiple paths to tenure.  It is ok to have research and teaching expectations that are individualized.
  • Adequate Financial Support. I know, adequate is a loaded term, but any of us in the system right now can tell you what adequate does not look like.  Adequate support also ensures tuition remains affordable for students.
  • Adequate Flexibility. This is both an external issue, i.e. a question of state mandates, as well as an internal issue, i.e. the nature of the university bureaucracy.  To be more efficient and effective universities and departments need the freedom to make our own decisions as well as the freedom to innovate.
  • Equitable Financial Support. This refers to some of the inequities in support between campuses.  For example, there are two R1 Universities in Wisconsin but only one that gets treated that way.  I also think some of this is reflected in philanthropic support, I wish there was more thoughtful discussion about how resources can be distributed in ways that strengthen the system as a whole.
  • More Utilization of Campus Resources. What do I mean by that?  Well, this too is a two-way street.  Faculty have so much to offer the state in terms of having a practical positive impact on government and industry, yet we are underutilized.  At the same time, we need to be aggressive about making our abilities and willingness to contribute known.
  • Talent Generation. We want to graduate well-rounded students that are assets to Wisconsin.
  • Collaboration over Competition. In tough financial times every UW system school had the same plan: Increase enrollments.  We cannot all not be successful.  More collaboration between campuses, more cooperate diploma programs, less duplication, and more willingness to view each other as assets as opposed to competitors is needed.  What do I mean by less duplication?  I look at it this way, why have two underfunded struggling programs at two geographically close campuses when we can have one well-funded cooperative program active on both?

I do not have a monopoly on good ideas, and I am sure I am missing things, but I hope others are thinking about this too.  We have a challenging situation in the UW system, but we also have so much talent, and so many great things going on.  I think we can leverage the good stuff to proactively address the challenges.

Having a Chip on Your Shoulder

I saw a recent tweet discussing the motivation that comes from being an academic with a chip on their shoulder. I agree completely. There are many things I love about working in academia. I have the freedom to follow research ideas of my choosing, some pan out, some don’t, but I get to pursue them. I get to learn something every single day. Sometimes from students, sometimes from colleagues, sometimes from books and articles, and even sometimes from myself. Research and teaching is challenging, fun, and interesting. In short, I know I have it good. Many never get to the tenure track, much less tenure.

But…and there is a but…it is not an easy road, and if I am honest, yes, I have a massive chip on my shoulder. When I hear people talk about multiple fly outs I think about how I applied for 50+ positions at R1 institutions and never even got a phone interview. I have had 3 interviews total, including where I am at. When I hear people say that it is all about publications, I cannot help but compare my record to people who did get those interviews, and who did get those jobs. When folks talk about their startup funds and their 1-2 teaching loads, I look at my 3-4 and barely functioning computer.

I will never forget the day I had an article rejected from a top PA journal on the grounds that the editor did not know who I was and thus did not trust the results. I remember the many conversations where well-meaning people advised me to not get stuck at a regional comprehensive university because it is career suicide. To be clear, I totally disagree with that assessment, but it is worth pointing out that such advice is unhelpful when R1s will not interview you.

I could go on, but who wants to hear my litany of complaints? The reality is just about every academic can share their own unique stories. When I hear tales of sexism and racism in the academy I realize my struggles are mild. When I meet colleagues who cannot sniff the tenure track despite great records I thank my lucky stars. I love PA because it is a field where we confront situations as they exist. Well, the academia is not always fair. The academia is not always a meritocracy. Perceived slights are not always slights. My read on situations is not always the correct one.

So, I try to recognize and use that chip on my shoulder. How? I work relentlessly to publish where I can when I can. I say yes to opportunities when they present themselves, and I am sure to be publicly thankful for them. I work hard to resist the urge to judge people by their publications or affiliations, instead recognizing that impact comes in many forms. I make an effort to be publicly facing so as to create a place where internal gatekeepers, be them at my institution or in my field, cannot stop me. In short, I try to make my impact where I can, and I try to focus on and appreciate how lucky I really am.

But yes, as petty as it is, I am still motivated by all of those R1s that wouldn’t interview me 🙂