Since 2002, Bob O’Neill has served as executive director of ICMA and this month he turns over the reins to his successor Marc Ott. Though O’Neill plans to stay involved with ICMA and especially his large community of friends and colleagues, we asked if he would share a few insights before moving on to the “next big thing.”
Biggest Challenges for Local Governments
While there is no shortage of problems local governments must tackle, O’Neill identified three areas that dominate:
- Meeting the demands of residents who want to live in a great community with excellent services without sufficient revenue and capital—especially as the federal and state governments withdrawal or divert support for services they once funded.
- The increasing importance of urban centers in the world economy and how best to harness this growth. This points to the need for regional approaches to solving problems that might be brought about by economic, social, technological, and environmental changes.
- The pace of technological change. While technology has always been a disrupter, the speed and magnitude of the changes create the challenge, while the adjustment period has significantly shortened. New technologies, for example, give us access to huge amounts of data and the ability to continuously connect to people. Technology is also creating major disruptions to jobs, mobility, and the structure of our lives. For example, there’s a benefit to being able to contact people but the other side of that is that it exacerbates the lack of civility.
O’Neill believes the local government management profession has become much more important in the last two decades because local government has become more of a nexus of activity. “So much of what is accomplished originates or is completed by local government, making professional managers more significant because what they contribute has so much more impact,” he said.
The demographics of the profession will change dramatically in the coming years as well, he said, with an increase in women, people of color, and people of other cultures finding success in local government roles. These diverse perspectives will most definitely change the profession.
In order to keep up, he believes ICMA needs to focus on helping members perform well when resources are constrained and residents have high expectations. “Members need to have the ability to know what others are doing very quickly in order to be able to adopt new approaches—helping them find and master this massive knowledge base. ICMA also needs to emphasize that managers put a high priority on continuous learning,” he said.
Leadership and Lifelong Learning Key
O’Neill said he is most proud of ICMA’s focus on leadership development programs. As he put it, “Management skills will always be important but in recent years, those skills aren’t enough because the dynamics have changed so much. With the increased focus on getting the things residents value at the local level, managers must be able to lead.” He also points to bringing the career stage focus to professional development—identifying skill sets needed at each career stage and offering those opportunities in partnership with state associations and universities. O’Neill also points to the focus on making the international component of the work of the association more relevant and creating a more stable financial base as among his accomplishments.
O’Neill said he, “would have liked to have seen more traction on the value of the profession initiatives. Part of it is that it’s not in our nature as managers to promote our cause, but if we don’t advocate for the profession, people will continue to challenge the role.”
"In addition to a little more leisure time and having fun with our kids and grandkids," he said he has a full slate ahead of him, including being "helpful to Marc in any way that I can during this transition period."
He also plans to join Davenport and Company in the public finance practice area, which is in a way like returning to his roots. The firm’s David Rose pointed out that O’Neill has long used performance metrics to help develop and guide financial practices, including debt and fund balances.
O’Neill plans to continue to do executive leadership work with SEI, PELA at UNC Chapel Hill, PEI at UT Austin, and Cal-ICMA LEAD through Stanford. He will also be taking on two university appointments. He will join Old Dominion as an adjunct professor in the Center for Regional Excellence in the Strome College of Business School of Public Service. He is also being named a Riley Fellow for the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities, an interdisciplinary initiative of the College of Charleston, whose mission is to leverage the intellectual resources of the college to support the economic and cultural vibrancy of communities throughout South Carolina, the United States, and around the world.
A Last Leadership Lesson
O’Neill said one of the challenges a manager faces is people getting into their "camps," making collective action difficult. This goes for a single local government or several local governments in a region. He said, “The technical part of the career, the budgeting and management skills, are important but there has never been a more important time for the 'symphonic skills' where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. In today’s world, these skills are worth their weight in gold. They are important for the profession and important for our communities.”