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Internal services departments—such as finance, human resources, information technology, and legal—play a critical role in all aspects of the world of work. This role feels especially significant in local government, given the stewardship of public funds and transparency principles that guide everything we do.

Tension exists in all municipal organizations as employees work to deliver services within the constraints of the regulatory departments. The internal service teams help protect the city by complying with laws, ensuring equity, and reducing risk. Yet, frustrations can arise as departments get impatient working within these constraints. Hiring managers seeking the best person to fill a key role bump up against the constraints of human resources salary and recruitment rules. Subject matter experts in a department become frustrated when legal and procurement teams do not authorize their request and stated justification for a sole source procurement. In addition, nearly every line department chafes at delays caused by bureaucratic, internal service processes.

Advice for the User Departments

When navigating internal service rules, there is a tendency among department managers, who are eager to get results quickly, to develop and finalize their approach and then present it to the internal service department as their intended course of action. However, this is akin to visiting a doctor, telling him or her that you have already diagnosed yourself by reviewing your symptoms on WebMD, and asking them to write the prescription you believe is indicated. Good luck with that!

Alternatively, some department managers may seek to go ahead and implement their own desired approach only to advise the internal service department afterward. After all, asking for forgiveness is often easier than seeking permission, right? In truth, this seldom works well from the onset and is even more likely to cause strained relationships in the long term.

A better and much more productive approach is to meet with the internal services department early on, share your desired outcome, and ask for guidance on how to get there. Invite the internal services department to collaborate and be part of your solution. After all, they are subject matter experts in their own right and have likely tackled similar concerns in the past.

Few departments would finalize plans for remodeling their offices without at least consulting an architect or engineer. After all, load-bearing walls are difficult to move and code requirements for ingress and egress can really complicate what otherwise looks to be a simple and effective reorganization plan. We typically acknowledge and seldom question these professionals when their advice causes a change in our plans. Yet, managers frequently react quite differently when IT, HR, finance, or procurement staff suggest changes. The investment of time up front to collaborate with internal service leaders usually saves a lot of time down the road. It also leads to much better working relationships and decreases the likelihood of the city/county manager’s office needing to referee a disagreement down the road!

Advice for the Internal Service Providers

When approached by departments asking for assistance to get results, it is helpful if the internal service teams can resist the bureaucratic tendency to say no. (A tendency that all of us can be prone to after many years working in government.) Approaching discussions with user departments with a “consult and collaborate” approach rather than a “direct and tell” approach is more effective. Taking an open-minded, solutions-based perspective to what the department is trying to achieve is far more preferable and contributes to better working relationships between internal service departments and the rest of the organization. As the user department and internal service team collaborate on options, the following questions can be helpful:

  • What is in the best interest of the city/organization?
  • What result are we trying to achieve?
  • What is the impact on the resident?
  • What is the impact on the team?
  • What is the right thing to do?

The public facing services often get all the glory. For example, public safety, parks and recreation, and public works services are visible in the community and receive recognition throughout the year. Internal services, though not visible to the public, are critical to the success of all city services. The principles discussed in this article contribute to a strong partnership between internal service departments and the rest of the organization. This partnership enhances public services and benefits the community.

Headshot of Jim Baker


JAMES BAKER is a retired city manager.




Headshot of Laura Fitzpatrick


LAURA FITZPATRICK, ICMA-CM, is deputy city manager of Chesapeake, Virginia.

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