Local government leadership has always involved managing the so-called “challenge of change.” But transformations over the past half-century and especially the past several years—exponentially advancing technology, the most significant global pandemic in modern lifetimes, a warming planet and threats to finite natural resources, and political and social instability at scales from international to local, to name just a few—have dramatically and forever altered the conditions in which local governments operate.
As we’ve come to terms with this new landscape, we’ve heard a growing desire from members for a return to the basics about fundamental aspects of their responsibilities as public administrators—information that will make them better leaders and managers. But what does that look like in the context of all that has changed already, and the challenges lurking over the horizon?
We’re committing to exploring this with and for you through a new initiative we’re calling Local Government Reimagined.
Local Government Reimagined (LGR) is ICMA’s long-term commitment to helping public administrators innovate and adapt their leadership practices, management strategies, and operations in the name of more resilient and equitable outcomes for their work and their communities. LGR is about helping local government leaders anticipate and understand the challenges impacting their work and communities, recognize opportunities for and target improved outcomes, and figure out how to get there.
Several core principles are driving this effort. Think of these as our reimagination lenses.
In the book No Easy Disruption, the authors observe that “Technology—from the printing press to the steam engine and the internet—has always been a great force in overturning the status quo. The difference today is the sheer ubiquity of technology in our lives and the speed of change.” Roughly a decade ago about one in three Americans owned a smartphone; by 2021 that figure had reached 85 percent. In 2011, only one in four local governments responding to an ICMA survey reported using any sort of cloud computing. By mid-2020, 94% of local governments reported increased shifts to virtual public meetings made possible by Zoom and other Software-as-a-Service products; other tools made it possible for a majority to adopt broader telework policies, increase information sharing through social media platforms, and/or operate processes remotely. We also recognize the tremendous potential—and need—for innovation independent of technology: discovering ways to, as Stenberg writes, “operate more nimbly, act entrepreneurially, and work collaboratively.” Regardless of form, LGR is about proactively identifying adaptations and innovations appropriate for today and the near-term tomorrow, as well as those that may be necessary for the next generation of public administrators.
The compounding events of the past several years have tested all facets of our individual and collective ability to endure and bounce back from challenging situations. What once seemed like a distant health threat has now logged more than half a billion cases worldwide and called into question the design of facilities and communities; the virtualization of processes; the fragility of workforces, budgets, and local economies; and the fact that we might face another pandemic of similar magnitude in our lifetimes. Meanwhile, communities across the country continue to deal with the consequences of climate-related change in the form of more frequent, extreme weather events from floods to wildfires to droughts. Others have faced high-profile crises related to clean water and massive power failures. Geopolitical conflicts are felt close to home through disruptions in supply chains, inflated prices, and population migration. And as local governments continue employing information and communications technology to achieve economic development or cost savings, increase resiliency of critical operations, provide enhanced services to residents, and for their safety and security features, their benefits must be weighed against cybersecurity, data ethics, and accessibility concerns.
ICMA’s Code of Ethics and Declaration of Ideals speak to the profession’s obligation to serve the best interests of all people and to achieve equity and social justice. “To ensure that all the people within their jurisdiction have the ability to actively engage with their local government, members should strive to eliminate barriers to public involvement in decisions, programs, and services.” While these statements were adopted decades ago, we have both data and lived experiences that attest to persistent disparities in both access to opportunities and outcomes across different population demographics. And while these did not manifest overnight, local administrators have the ability to shape conversations about this information and to implement policies that break down barriers that may have been difficult to see—from where and when you hold a meeting, to where you invest in parks or streetlights, to revising your approach to fines and fees. With regard to internal operations and your team, we also recognize the complexities in modernizing policies and processes for today’s dynamic environment while maintaining fairness and impartiality.
As we launch Local Government Reimagined, we are developing research, content, and programming to explore and highlight several broad, interconnected themes.
ICMA’s timeless definition of leadership is engaging with and inspiring others to participate in developing, achieving, articulating, and embodying a shared set of values, shared sense of purpose, and shared vision of the desired community outcome. Today’s local government leaders must do all of this on a constantly shifting playing field and in an increasingly transparent and accessible fishbowl. The intense pressure on and scrutiny of public officials would seem to discourage risk-taking and threaten personal resiliency and work-life balance. The political climate has propelled new board members into policymaking positions, sometimes with less experience in traditional governmental processes, and previously mundane discussions with them and the community can quickly escalate into values-based debates. These threaten to distract, if not actively undermine, the work of professional administrators, their governing bodies, and staff.
But therein lies an opportunity for bold, courageous leadership; for chief administrators to be willing to review and reimagine their organizations’ core values, vision, and decision-making processes to ensure they serve the full community today and long into the future. To be willing to acknowledge and work to address past blind spots or misconceptions, and to support governing bodies in developing policy agendas for the community around potentially thorny or polarizing issues. To champion the importance of mental health and wellness for themselves and their whole team, including being open to new ways of working and evaluating success. And ultimately, still providing the professional leadership excellence expected of ICMA managers through their adapted approaches and adjusted priorities.
ICMA members are already modeling this mindset, leveraging timeless leadership principles and flexing strategies where needed to effectively address the most urgent concerns in their communities and workforces. We’ll lift up these examples and lessons learned, honoring perspectives across the profession, from the most seasoned managers to those just beginning their public service careers.
ICMA and the local government management profession have built a 100+ year history around ethical, efficient, transparent, and results-oriented oversight of local government operations. To ensure leaders and the local government workforce continue to meet those obligations, we’ll focus on the challenges and opportunities in future-proofing processes, systems, and policies. How are local governments adapting budgeting and strategic planning processes to incorporate more meaningful public input and better deal with uncertainty? What must a Continuity of Operations strategy and hazard mitigation planning account for given what we’ve learned about health, cyber, and climate-related threats? What are leading strategies for using data and evidence-based decision making in conjunction with these and other tools to adjust approaches in a more agile, iterative cadence?
In the wake of the Great Resignation, we also know systemic workforce issues remain top of mind for local government leaders. As managers Jim Malloy (Lexington, Massachusetts) and Tanisha Briley (Gaithersburg, Maryland) discussed at the 2022 ICMA Annual Conference, vacant positions in competitive markets that once attracted dozens of applications can go for months or even longer unfilled. What can be done to attract and retain more talent, including young people, to the local government profession? Compensation is an obvious but not the only solution (nor feasible for all communities), so how are places getting creative with reconfiguring job responsibilities, hybrid or remote work environments, or other incentives? How must public agencies expedite and modernize their recruitment processes and benefits to remain competitive in current and anticipated labor markets? And how to do this while maintaining equity across the organization and without alienating long-term employees?
Across the range of local government service areas, current expectations, systems, and delivery models often look vastly different than when many managers entered the profession. How, where, when, and by whom the work gets done present opportunities for reimagination to make the best use of resources and meet needs of the public.
The year 2020 piqued widespread interest in rethinking service delivery, as processes rapidly pivoted to virtual and public demonstrations worldwide called for public safety reform. But ICMA has long championed the use of performance measurement and management to guide improvements and offered research on alternative service delivery models and partnerships. Several years ago, we explored innovations in public libraries—many of which have continued their transformation into even more dynamic, digital, and inclusive hubs of community service and programming. And just prior to the pandemic, we took a deep dive with our partners at the Center for Public Safety Excellence to develop a framework for 21st Century Fire and Emergency Services, offering research-based strategies for local governments to address critical concerns.
We’ll do more of this through Local Government Reimagined. A similarly in-depth process is underway looking at the evolution of public safety and law enforcement management. We’ll explore intersections of our work on cybersecurity and digital governance, resilient infrastructure, and disaster preparedness. We will help local governments find ways to collaborate and realize efficiencies and win-win opportunities in regional partnerships such as broadband development, affordable housing, or childcare services. As was done recently in McMinnville, Oregon, we’ll unpack questions about core services and expectations of the public.
ICMA recognizes the leadership role of local government managers in creating and maintaining livable communities. Rather than create yet another definition of a nebulous term, Local Government Reimagined embraces the concept broadly to include activities that promote healthy, thriving, resilient places and people. “Livability can encompass everything from planting street trees to revolutionizing public transportation. A livable community can be one that cultivates leadership everywhere, creates a sense of community, connects people and resources, practices ongoing dialogue, embraces diversity, operationalizes racial justices and shapes its future.”
Local governments continue to confront “wicked problems” related to housing, food security, climate, poverty, crime, community relations, and many other complex issues exacerbated by the compounding crises of the last several years. But as illustrated in our recent guide, Problem Solving Through Arts and Cultural Strategies, these can lead to opportunities for open-minded government staff and local stakeholders to communicate, build trust, and collaborate in new ways. Like in Alameda County, California, where public safety officers hosted pop up events activating vacant spaces where kids, families and small businesses could interact—spurring construction of a permanent plaza, providing opportunities for nearly 30 entrepreneurs, and fostering positive relations. Or in Fargo, North Dakota, where stormwater infrastructure that historically divided the community was reimagined through a public-driven process to cultivate the social fabric along with ecological benefits.
We will draw on ICMA’s foundation of work in areas such as sustainability, community engagement, planning across generations, local food systems, arts and culture, and more in exploring innovative approaches that are making a difference in community resilience and quality of life. And we’ll focus on strategies to meet people where they are, to find common ground and facilitate civic cohesion.
We began thinking internally about Local Government Reimagined fairly early in the pandemic, as local governments and their communities were still absorbing shocks of revenue loss and questioning how to support their vulnerable households and businesses. Since those initial conversations, we’ve seen some relief of financial stress via commitments of the American Recue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. As local governments continue to strategize about implementation of these programs, it remains critical to consider long-term resilience and equity implications of these investments.
ICMA has offered several recent and ongoing programs to assist local governments in making strategic, future-oriented decisions impacting economic recovery and growth in their communities. Focus areas include positioning your community to more quickly rebound from natural or other disaster events, free technical assistance for redeveloping brownfield sites in your community, examples of budgeting tools and strategies that incorporate equity concepts, and guidance on incentivizing and streamlining solar infrastructure development. Looking ahead, a recent $1 million investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will support a yearlong effort to build capacity for local decision-makers to help increase economic mobility and inclusive economic development in their communities.
Of course, there are broader factors at issue as well, including persistent inflation and recessionary concerns; changes in the long-term outlook for property, sales, and other tax streams; and a perpetual cycle of disruptive industries. To that end, we’re partnering with the Government Finance Officers Association in their Rethinking Revenue and Rethinking Budgeting initiatives, which have already produced a series of reports on trends impacting local government finances and highlighting innovative practices to recalibrate local systems with the modern economic climate.
As we develop our Local Government Reimagined agenda for this first year, we welcome your input on questions to explore, what’s working (or not) in your community, and other ideas for helping to shape this long-term initiative. In the short term, our Local Government Reimagined Conferences series offered this February through June will provide opportunities for you to engage with ICMA, your peers, and other partners in the global local government ecosystem on these issues.
New, Reduced Membership Dues
A new, reduced dues rate is available for CAOs/ACAOs, along with additional discounts for those in smaller communities, has been implemented. Learn more and be sure to join or renew today!