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.