One of the few benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the amount of time that has been freed for people to spend remodeling and fixing up their homes. In 1990, my wife and I bought our first home in Lawrence, Kansas. We spent several weeks each year remodeling our 1,700-square-foot 1960’s Cape Cod room by room. We updated wiring and plumbing, added insulation to walls, and replaced windows, among other things. It was a lot of work that took us more than 10 years to complete.
Isabel Wilkerson compares inheriting an old house in need of repairs to inheriting 400-plus years of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and systemic racism.1 Borrowing Wilkerson’s metaphor, current local government managers inherit houses built on a flawed legal foundation of systemic racism where the long-term consequences leak through the gaping cracks and where implicit bias wafts through the ill-fitted windows. The persistent racial inequities in our communities stem from uncomfortable legacies of real estate redlining, zoning and regulatory ordinances with implicit bias toward segregation, and labor practices biased against hiring and promoting people of color who wanted to be local government professionals in police, fire, public works, and other functions of local government. While current managers are not responsible for the past, they are accountable for the present and the future.
Over 100 years since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle,2 people of color around the world are working in physically demanding and dangerous slaughterhouse jobs now deemed essential to our quality of life as well, and many still lack the protections they need to raise their families and make our communities stronger. Every day in this country, children wake up in apartments without heating or cooling, and drink water flowing through lead pipes that literally destroy their brains. Single parents living in dangerous neighborhoods navigate multiple buses and walk block after block to get to jobs that pay low wages just so they can put food on the table for their children. Despite the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the protests and reforms of the 1960s, racial injustice persists and stifles the potential of millions of children and their parents to be fully engaged and successfully in their—and our—daily lives.
What does this have to do with local government management? Some would argue that we should not be talking about systemic racism because these are divisive issues that make people uncomfortable. Pretending that discrimination doesn’t exist anymore, only happens to a few people, and that the media blows it out of proportion doesn’t make them go away. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t happen by magic. It bends toward justice because public service professionals, including local government managers in ICMA, help to bend it.
Many ICMA members are deeply engaged in and confronted by the challenges of racial justice. Yet the calls for actions to vanquish institutional racism in our communities have conjured a lively and uncomfortable conversation among members of ICMA.3 One contingent is eschewing an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the profession, claiming it is a politically divisive, ideological activity that is contrary to ICMA’s espoused political neutrality. Another contingent of members argues that a DEI emphasis is central to ending systemic racism and pursuing social justice, and that these goals are moral and consonant with ICMA’s ethics tenet of providing public services to all the residents in a community.
Our House: The ICMA Legacy
Lest anyone think that ICMA’s current discussion about institutional racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion is too “political” and “ideological,” think again. The reform movement that provided the foundation for ICMA was a political reform movement. It took political power away from big (and small) city machines that depended heavily on immigrant populations and working class laborers to get the votes needed in partisan local elections to decide who was taxed to pay for services, what services were provided, and what level and quality of municipal services were delivered to which parts of the city. The reformers shifted power from the partisan political machines to middle- and upper-income professionals who wanted tax dollars spent on their preferences.4
Professional city management benefited the Progressives, and it benefited the communities as a whole, which now had nonpartisan professional managers who would hire skilled professionals based on their merit and their ability to deliver high-quality municipal services, including clean water, public safety, green spaces, and more. The ICMA Code of Ethics enshrines the principle of merit-based, nonpartisan management and that has been a wonderful gift to our communities for over a century. Well and good: ICMA members should refrain from partisan political activities, but every seasoned manager knows that nonpartisan does not mean apolitical.
Let us not dismiss the fact that ICMA was born as part of a political movement and our members engage in political activities every day. That is because politics is about getting people with different views and perspectives—on city councils, county commissions, village boards, and so on—to come to a collective decision about how to move the community forward. As John Nalbandian, Jim Svara, and others noted decades ago, this also entails having political conversations with residents to incorporate their perspectives into the processes that lead to the governing boards’ decisions. These are the hard, crucial political conversations that managers and their leadership teams have every day.
The ICMA Code of Ethics
The ICMA Code of Ethics commandment to “refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators” does not restrict the definition of “public” to white male professionals. Today, the difficult political conversations have turned to the historical issue that has vexed the nation for decades: how do we gain “public confidence in professional administrators” from those residents who do not have confidence that our professional ICMA administrators understand—and are responsive to—their issues and problems? The disturbing truth is that the experiences of many people of color with their local governments have undermined their confidence in the professional administrators who run the place.
This is the urgent problem that our professional managers face today. We have lost the confidence of a public that is rapidly changing complexion, who care deeply about the centrality of diverse, inclusive local decision-making processes that result in more equitable distribution of community resources so that there is no “bad section of town,” no neighborhood schools to avoid, no divisions of thriving and dying sections of towns. We—as a profession—are facing a crisis of public confidence because we have not evolved as a diverse, inclusive, and equitable profession.
Raising the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion is an important first step in recognizing that the profession needs to come to grips with its empirical history of very low levels of diversity and inclusion in the local government profession. If ICMA had been successful in DEI, then approximately 18% of our local managers (and their leadership teams) would be of Latinx heritage, 13% would be of African American heritage, 6% of Asian heritage, 1.5% of Native American or Native Hawaiian heritage, and about 3% from a heritage of two or more races. In short, if our profession had evolved in its diversity and inclusion as the nation has evolved, if “equality of opportunity” were a reality in the profession, then we would expect that today, in 2021, only about 61% of our local government managers and leadership teams would be of white, European heritages, and more than half of them would be women. That is not the make-up of ICMA or local government leadership today. ICMA professionals in other countries are facing similar inequities.
ICMA is an amazing organization, and local government management is an amazing profession. There is no other profession that is so committed to its Code of Ethics and its members that there is a funded program to help managers in transition so that they always know that they can walk away from a position if it requires them to act unethically or in an inappropriate way that harms the long-term health and sustainability of the community they are helping to lead. We are a profession of committed public servants and I believe most members are ready to embrace the DEI headwinds of today.
Governing boards may be reluctant to address racial inequality and implicit biases in local zoning, development, and regulatory ordinances. It is up to those who currently manage our communities to address the problems of the house they inherited in an ethical, nonpartisan way. It will require managing with political courage. It is not enough to acknowledge that DEI is an issue. If our members are to manage this issue with political courage, they need to know how to actually have the difficult conversations with employees, boards and councils, and residents. What are effective strategies for productive and interactive conversations with the diverse and changing workforces and citizenry of our communities? These are the tools that ICMA should provide in gatherings large and small. This is not political activity; it is management training.
Preparing for Courageous Conversations
What should ICMA be doing to help members manage the equity needs of the profession? Members of the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) have long emphasized the need for accredited MPA programs to help improve DEI in public service by increasing the diversity of student bodies and their corresponding faculties, and by addressing DEI issues in their curricula. ICMA should consider partnering with NASPAA to develop leadership curricula that help current members and those in the pipeline tackle the central leadership of this decade: how to lead and manage in local public governance by communicating and interacting productively with a diverse and changing workforce and citizenry in our communities.5
Our Northern Illinois University MPA curriculum has three core management competencies to help the next generation of local government managers develop this universal competency. Upon graduation from our program, our students should be able to:
- Effectively work with a diverse group of internal and external stakeholders.
- Meaningfully engage with people holding diverse perspectives to address public service issues.
- Develop or adapt policies, programs, goods, or services to accommodate changing social demographics for the population they serve.
- Incorporate professional codes of ethics in public service decision-making to enhance integrity of public services.
With respect to this last competency, students in our first MPA class must compare and contrast at least two professional codes of ethics and then adopt one to guide their professional decision making. Most of our internship students—those who belong to NIU’s ICMA student chapter and want to become local government managers—usually compare and contrast the codes of ethics of ICMA and the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA). Senior ICMA professional managers should note that many of our internship track students adopt the ASPA Code of Ethics instead of ICMA. Why? Because, they write in their explanatory memos, ICMA’s Code of Ethics omits ASPA’s commitment to social justice, equity and inclusion. And they strongly believe in this aspect of the code. They adopt and accept the other tenets of the ICMA code, but their foundation is the ASPA code and its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The future of ICMA is in the newest generations who are committed to racial and social equity, not in a generation that ignores the imperative.
NASPAA could assist ICMA in developing management training that will help ICMA members learn how to have three kinds of courageous conversations about the racial inequities in our communities and our profession:
- Courageous conversations with those residents who have had their voices systematically diminished or excluded. Local governments can use this kind of competency as an objective or outcome in their community engagement processes.
- Courageous conversations within their organization that critically look at department heads, staff, etc., with a DEI lens. Local governments can bring in external voices and facilitators, conduct a comprehensive equity audit, and use DEI performance indicators to improve the DEI climate in their organizations.
- A self-reflective courageous conversation that honestly confronts a manager’s own biases. In addition to confronting implicit biases, managers can reflect on their code of ethics and consider its imperatives for working toward racial justice.
ICMA could develop goals and objectives for members who want to embrace the social justice headwinds our profession is facing. We can draw on the many ICMA members who have had—or are trying to have—these difficult conversations. The Leadership Institute on Race, Equity, and Inclusion created by ICMA, in partnership with the Kettering Foundation and the National Civic League, is a good step forward. In addition, ICMA can partner with the Local Government Hispanic Network, National Forum for Black Public Administrators, and National Academy of Public Administration to create curricula that go beyond its current offerings.
It’s Time to Bend the Arc of the Moral Universe
We don’t resolve divisive issues by ignoring them. We must resolve divisive issues by facing them, determined to respect diverse opinions and the different frames of reference that arise from unique paths to that moment of the conversation. As ICMA professionals, we must strive to work effectively with diverse internal and external stakeholders, to communicate effectively with diverse audiences orally and in writing, to frame problems in ways that create solution sets that move our communities forward while bending that arc of the moral universe a little more toward justice for all of the residents in our communities. Doing so will often require management courage in the midst of political conversations of the governing board and community residents. It requires courageously looking inward (to courageously face our own biases/prejudices and those within our organization) and courageously facing outward in community engagement. Local government managers must strive to bend the arc of the moral universe because the ICMA Code of Ethics and history demand this.
Our younger generations of local government managers and the generation in the pipeline are already committed to making their communities’ leadership more diverse, inclusive, and equitable. They feel a responsibility to live their public service values and ethics, to be the change that they want the world to become. As an aging Boomer, I envy their energy, their innovativeness, and their opportunities to make our communities, our nation, and our world way better off than they are finding it as they graduate. This is what managing local governments and nonprofit agencies in our communities is about in the twenty-first century.
Even as we admit the flaws in the foundation of the ICMA that the Progressives built at the turn of the twentieth century, we can be proud that ICMA was built to rid communities of blatant corruption, incompetence, and unhealthy communities. Over 100 years later, ICMA is poised to rid our communities of latent racism in our laws, practices, and policies.
ICMA members and our newest graduates need to be engaged in these struggles precisely because they are divisive and unsettled, and require expertise coupled with passion to make everyone in our communities better off. Will this be easy? No. Remodeling a house is hard work, and it takes time as well as effort. Do we have all the answers? No. But ICMA should be working on them for our members and the communities they serve. Our newest ICMA members are eager to get started.
Endnotes and Resources
1 Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: the origins of our discontents. New York, Random House, 2020.
2 Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle (1906). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
3 For example, see ICMA Connect: Is ICMA succeeding in helping you address your equity needs in the profession?
4 See Rubin, Irene S. Class, tax, and power: Municipal budgeting in the United States. CQ Press, 1998.
5 See NASPAA universal competencies at https://www.naspaa.org/accreditation/standards-and-guidance/standard-standard-guidance/standard-5-matching-operations