Photos of Matt Fulton

Matt Fulton

ICMA Midwest regional director and former city manager

Matt Fulton joined us to talk about the importance of fostering global engagement among local government leaders, as well as his connection with ICMA’s historical work focused on building out the “I” in ICMA through his personal global experiences.

Tell us a bit about your experience with global engagement through ICMA.

ICMA has provided me with many opportunities to connect on a global scale with other local government professionals. Being a member of ICMA’s Global Engagement Committee, which was known as the International Task Force during my time of service, connected me with a network of local government professionals around the world. These professional relationships, which in many cases became great personal friendships, helped me appreciate the universal commonalities in the work we do in our local government organizations.

Creating vibrant, sustainable, and safe communities requires the same levels of leadership, professionalism, and commitment in meeting the challenging issues of the day. The solutions are dependent on the environment of our communities, including such things as form of government, economics, political dynamics, social contexts, historical precedents, geography, access to resources, legislative mandates, and more. The connections and conversations gave me a much broader perspective on how to best meet the needs of the communities I served. It was extremely helpful to learn how global communities dealt with the same issues I was confronting.  

During my tenure on the task force, I was able to experience, network, and learn from local government professionals in the following communities/countries:

  • London, England.
  • Guadalajara, Mexico.
  • Malmo, Sweden.
  • Dublin, Ireland.
  • Siena, Italy (serving as ICMA representative to UDITE conference).
  • Sydney, Australia.
  • Montego Bay, Jamaica.
  • Bratislava, Slovakia (while serving on ICMA Executive Board).

Specifically, in 2005, Swedish City Manager Miomir Serbinson and I organized and led a Sweden/Minnesota Exchange program that involved 20 Minnesota city managers/administrators and approximately 12 Swedish chief executives. During the exchange, we decided to have participants stay in the homes of their hosts, which had the impact of deepening relationships and fostering a better understanding of lifestyle and culture. Friendships made during that exchange continue today.

How have global exchange experiences impacted your professional life?

While I haven’t participated in a formal fellowship or ICMA CityLinks™ international exchange, I have many colleagues who have taken advantage of these opportunities. I have also benefited from developing strong friendships with international local government representatives exchanging in the United States.

Exchanges offer the unique ability to gain much deeper understanding and appreciation of how common issues affecting local government organizations and communities are addressed globally. My personal international experiences exposed me to many unique approaches to public service delivery that fundamentally broadened how I considered issues and challenges during my career.

In the United Kingdom, it was fascinating to learn about the neighborhood constables who focused on resolving neighborhood issues without needing to carry guns and relying on a metropolitan police force when additional help was required.  It was also very impressive to learn about the creative organizational development and recognition programs that UK communities implemented with great success.

In Mexico, because of its three-year term limit requirements for elected officials at the time, I was exposed to the challenges of not being able to plan long term and the impacts of always seeming to work in crisis mode, particularly with capital improvement needs.

In Sweden, the “Cradle to Grave” approach with social issues helped me reflect on possible ways to support the needs of employees in my organization, and the country’s commitment toward environmental sustainability left me appreciating how seemingly advanced they were from what I had experienced in the U.S.

In Australia, I was able to observe a wonderful friendly competition between Australia and New Zealand called the Management Challenge. Teams made up of younger leaders competed in developing organizational responses to several mock scenarios focused on typical community issues, with an occasional community disaster thrown in along the way. The “competitors” socialized together the evening before the daylong competition, which created professional and personal connections. Independent experts (organizational and HR consultants) judged the event, and a celebratory event ended the day. I left convinced that this type of fun and practical experience would be very helpful for our emerging leaders.

In Jamaica, the conversation with peers focused on how to strengthen local government services in an environment dominated by the national level.

Every international experience I had supported my development as a local government leader. The issues I had been dealing with were, for the most part, identical to the pressing needs of the international community. A great example of this was when the ICMA Executive Board met in Slovakia, we heard from a Czech Republic city manager that his most pressing issue was a community swimming pool that had failed. He was getting strong pressure from the community and elected body to get the pool fixed, yet he was constrained due to the lack of capital resources. It made me appreciate how globally we are all after the same community goals and can learn and benefit from each other’s experiences.

Professional exchange experiences strengthen the ability to look at local issues with a wider lens. This is particularly important as our local communities diversify and issues become increasingly complex and dependent on understanding the needs of a diverse population. From a professional perspective, I also believe those individuals who take part in an international exchange are viewed a bit differently by their domestic colleagues. There is an authentic appreciation, and probably a bit of envy, of those professionals who intentionally broaden their professional skills and life experiences through an international experience. I think that most of my colleagues would welcome the opportunity but are hesitant to take the necessary steps to make it happen.

The lifelong professional, and personal, connections that exchange programs help create cannot be understated. ICMA offers such wonderful opportunities to develop strong networks beyond our domestic boundaries. In my case, I would contend that my global experiences directly influenced the opportunities I had to serve ICMA, not only as an Executive Board member, but also in my current role as Midwest regional director.

Why are global exchanges and knowledge sharing so valuable to anyone in local government?

As our world becomes smaller and increasingly influenced by global issues, immigration, and advancements, it is imperative that local government professionals develop the awareness of how to best meet the needs of their increasingly complex and diverse communities. The adage, “You only know what you know,” demands that perspectives and approaches to dealing with today’s “wicked issues” are informed by best practices, regardless of where they exist globally. The rapidly changing dynamic of the local environment requires an equally open-minded approach to finding the best answers to help create sustainable and strong local communities.

Building awareness and trust in the exploration of global best practices is the foundational requirement in gaining a truly global perspective. Both require intentionality and the willingness to create these international connections and relationships. The beauty is in recognizing the mutual interest in learning from each other! The challenge is how to bring local professionals together, which is where ICMA steps in. ICMA is structured to be the premier professional organization to help shape and bring these connections together.

What advice can you give other local government professionals who may be interested in taking part in a global exchange?

Here is my advice to those who are sincerely interested in building a global perspective:

1. Be courageous. It is sometimes difficult to rearrange professional and personal priorities/commitments without significant effort.

2.  Be a leader and champion around the importance of learning beyond your boundaries. Lean into learning how other professional local government executives carry out their goals of strengthening the quality of life in their communities. Build a culture that supports global learning.

3. Communicate the value of a global perspective with your elected body, the organization, and the community. This requires leadership, an intentional strategy, and a relationally intelligent approach. If possible, bring others along on the journey; it requires as many “champion voices” as possible to introduce innovative ideas and approaches, as you create/build a more globally connected culture.

4. Incorporate the idea of building a global perspective into your strategic plan and appreciate that it will be something built/created/embraced over time. A global exchange program can play a very important element of this strategy.

5. Find international influences already existing in the community and align plans/exchanges to strengthen those existing connections. The more you can bring the community together around the value of building a global perspective, including participating in exchanges, the more likelihood of success.

What are your hopes for ICMA’s next 100 years of global work?

My hope is that ICMA will be uniformly recognized as the international professional membership organization that strengthens professional local government management globally. Furthermore, I hope that:

  • Through ICMA’s global engagement strategy, ICMA will fully embrace, support, and actively build an international network of local government professionals. The strategy should include a comprehensive database of best practices focused on the issues local government organizations and communities face, and a structured, yet unencumbered, method for connecting professional colleagues from all over the world around these topics.
  • ICMA will provide opportunities for building and strengthening professional networks through conferences and multimedia approaches using the best technology available.
  • ICMA will have a well-established exchange program for professionals at every stage of their career, and a process that captures/shares those experiences with other local government professionals to continue strengthening the program as well as communicate the value of thinking globally.
  • ICMA should continue to support its grant work around the world and provide opportunities for practitioners to take part.
Watch Matt’s full interview and learn more about ICMA’s global journey by viewing the ICMA Global playlist on YouTube.


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