I recently had a conversation with a fellow manager that gave me pause. This manager, who I consider a capable professional, has served with distinction in her current community. She told me of a former manager, no longer active in the profession, who once served as the manager in her community and has become active in the Republican Party. This former manager described her as the “Democrat manager.”
Given my knowledge of this colleague and her solid reputation, this former manager’s comment did not ring true to me. Professional managers, and especially ICMA members, take very seriously the ICMA Code of Ethics’ charge to “refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators.”
What would happen to our profession though if managers were considered either “Republican managers” or “Democrat managers”? Said another way, what would happen if some managers were members of “Team Red” and others of “Team Blue”? How would this affect our ability to effectively manage? How would this affect a manager’s working relationship with elected officials, and especially with those who hold contrary political views?
Why Political Neutrality
When a manager is perceived as partisan, he or she is likely to be viewed as biased or having a political agenda. This can lead to a loss of credibility and eventually public trust. The council-manager form of government was created, in part, to engender public confidence in the professional administration of local government. Prior to the creation of the council-manager form, local governments were too often wrought with patronage, inefficient administration, and graft, which resulted in a perception of inefficiency and even corruption.
For over 100 years, and through the general adherence to the ICMA Code of Ethics, professional managers have, for the most part, garnered the reputation of being politically neutral and impartial. This has led to better local government management and a higher level of trust among elected officials and citizens. In short, better outcomes.
Administration/Politics Dichotomy (or Policy Development/Political Advocacy Dichotomy)
Some have argued that the traditional administration/politics dichotomy is impossible to achieve, seemingly suggesting that even attempting to separate these activities is a fruitless endeavor. Of course, most practitioners recognize that there are boundaries to a manager’s level of political involvement. One may not always be able to clearly define what those boundaries are, but we can often clearly tell when they are crossed.
Rather than striving to adhere to the traditional administration/politics dichotomy, it may be more realistic to strive for a policy development/political advocacy dichotomy. Managers need to and should be involved in the process of policy development, often making specific recommendations about which policy is best. Policy development suggests that a manager presents a variety of policy options to elected officials for issues that may be politically volatile or not.
Political advocacy, on the other hand, resides more comfortably within the realm of the elected official, especially with politically volatile issues. Especially with politically controversial issues, the manager should provide a variety of policy options based, at least in part, on the different political perspectives prior to making a recommendation.
The professional manager should operate much closer to the policy development end of the continuum and tread very carefully on the political advocacy side, especially with politically volatile issues. A manager sometimes cannot avoid dealing with politically volatile issues, but how he or she presents policy recommendations can be the difference between appearing politically neutral or politically partisan.
Managers, like many people, often have strongly held political views and opinions. Professional managers, however, should work hard to hold these political views in check, especially when making policy recommendations to elected officials or making public statements. Again, politically neutral policy recommendations can often include a variety of policy options, some of which may be guided by different political ideologies. Presenting more than one option not only conveys political neutrality, it also provides elected officials with the kind of information they need to make sound decisions for their constituents.
A manager must be mindful of his or her own political positions. Sometimes a manager may not even be aware that what he or she is doing or saying is politically partisan or perceived as politically partisan. This can create a real blind spot that can hinder public trust.
Our society is more politically divided today than it has been in decades and maybe even in our lifetimes. In today’s social media environment, too many feel the need to take a political position on everything. At the same time, there is a corresponding increase in the number of issues that are now viewed as politically partisan.
In this environment, it is especially challenging for the professional manager to not only be politically neutral, but to also maintain the perception of political neutrality.
Political or Not Political?
Issues that just a decade or two ago were not considered politically partisan are today hotly debated. For example, a person may hold the view that abortion is wrong and should be illegal. This person may feel strongly that this is not a politically partisan position, but rather a moral position. Although it certainly could be viewed as a moral issue, most people would likely agree that it is also a political position. Further, many would presume that someone who holds this view is a member of “Team Red.” Whether it is actually a politically partisan position or not may not be as important as the fact that most people would perceive it as such.
Similarly, a person may hold the view that the growing level of gun violence should move lawmakers to enact more stringent gun control measures. This person may feel strongly that this is not a politically partisan position, but rather a moral position. Although it could certainly be viewed as a moral issue, most people would likely agree that this is also a politically partisan position. Further, many would presume that someone who holds this view is a member of “Team Blue.” Again, whether it is actually a politically partisan position or not may not be as important as the fact that most people would perceive it as such.
If a manager were to publicly advocate for either of these issues, he or she would likely be viewed as taking a politically partisan position. Of course, there are many other issues that if publicly advocated for would also be viewed as politically partisan. What can complicate matters is that what is perceived as politically partisan can vary by community.
What to Do?
How can professional managers adhere to the spirit of the ICMA Code of Ethics and remain politically neutral in this hyper-politicized environment?
- Be committed to the principle of political neutrality.
- Be aware of your political positions and recognize that a position can be viewed as politically partisan even if one does not intend it to be.
- Work hard to check one’s political advocacy when carrying out the administration of local government, including policy recommendations.
- Be willing to make changes and adjustments if one’s actions are, or are perceived to be, politically partisan.
- Remember the wisdom of personal and organizational restraint. Just because something is deeply important to you individually does not mean that you should use your position to advocate for your political or partisan positions.
- Understand that there is a difference between policy development and political advocacy. Sound judgment and a keen eye are sometimes needed to distinguish between the two.
- Be familiar and conversant with different perspectives on the political issues of the day. This will not only help a manager be more aware of political issues, but also allow him or her to more effectively present different policy options.
This subject is certainly a sensitive one, even among professional managers, but it is not likely to get easier. If the current trends of hyper-politicization continue, remaining politically neutral may eventually be one of the most vexing challenges facing the professional local government manager.
MATTHEW H. CANDLAND, ICMA-CM, is township manager of Upper Moreland Township, Pennsylvania.