By John Nalbandian
Traditionally, we think of local governments “providing” services and “regulating” individual and collective actions to create and sustain livable communities. But, these functions, while essential, constrain our thinking about the role of government officials—both elected and appointed. Reading this mission statement adopted by Varberg, Sweden— “The creative hotspot of Western Sweden” includes something called “watchwords:” new thinking, drive and ambition, knowledge, courage. And the mission statement is: “We act to simplify people’s everyday life and inspire them to make their dreams come true.” I am captured by this language because it seems so distant from those adopted by communities in America.
I think the concept of local government as provider and regulator falls short of a social contract that cultivates an environment that simplifies people’s lives and inspires them to reach for dreams. I think we do as well; we just are not as poetic as Varberg in describing our aspirations for building community resilience and a sense of place where social capital is built and thrives to provide the rich culture where people can dream not only for themselves but collectively.
What if we expand the concept of local government as provider and regulator to include “convener” and “enabler?” The convening and enabling roles are growing in relevance and in our vocabulary in large part because they represent adaptations to contemporary challenges. We have structures and processes derived from providing and regulating functions. You, as local government administrators, are in the process of adapting to contemporary challenges that create dissonance with yesterday’s problem-solving structures and processes. Think of individual job descriptions, for example. As traditionally constructed, how useful are they in today’s dynamic and team-oriented work environment. A colleague of mine at the University of Kansas says job descriptions are “artifacts.” Artifacts! They belong in museums!
The Leadership Team Concept
I’m not ready to transport the idea of a local government management team to the museum of organizational artifacts; it still is relevant in today’s work environment. But competent management has become a “threshold” requirement for an effective staff. To add value, the contemporary department head must function as an effective “leadership team” member. Think of what we expect of the contemporary police chief. Running a department effectively is a threshold requirement; building legitimacy in the community embraces “convening” and “enabling” functions and structures, and processes.
Let’s take a step up the conceptual ladder—join me on the balcony! I see a leadership team whose reach extends horizontally as well as vertically. Vertical reach is confined within organizational silos and chains of command starting with the governing body. Horizontal reach extends not only between departments, but beyond. The University of Kansas colleague I referred to above also alerted me to “boundary management” as a function of contemporary local government administrators. Think of leadership team members not only looking down and up within the organization, but also horizontally within the organization and outside the organization. Within, boundary management asks “when is it appropriate to maintain departmental boundaries? When is it appropriate to drop those boundaries? How do you invite the knowledge and experience that will enable you as a member of the leadership team to engage these challenges?
The embrace of convening and enabling roles for local governments challenges the boundaries between public/private/non-profit, as well as jurisdictional boundaries. I know this is vague, but I think that is where we are; where you are. You are involved in an experiment; not of your choosing, but demanded by the environment you are working in. Traditionally government roles of provider and regulator are being increasingly supplemented by the convening and enabling roles which extend your required reach. This invite is not yours to reject. You must accept.
In my view as an academician focusing on local government and in eight years as city commissioner including two terms as the council’s choice as mayor, the landscape of governance is changing because the problems we are dealing with do not fall neatly within jurisdictional and organizational boundaries. As we realize that the challenges we are dealing with do not neatly correspond with traditional organizational structures or jurisdictional boundaries, imagining, conceptualizing, and managing horizontally becomes an imperative not an elective. I know you are doing these things now, BUT are you consciously learning from your experiences in ways that can lead to productive generalizations transferable to aspiring top level managers?
Re-thinking Your Role
Think of “anchor institutions” in your community. Roots that represent continuity and strength and branches that reach beyond seeking connections. And then think of the role of local governments in encouraging, “convening,” “fostering,” and “enabling” these institutions as a partner would. Think about your local government as convening not only residents but representatives of these anchor institutions in what former city manager Jim Oliver (Norfolk) labeled a “cabinet” of community governance. A cabinet of individuals who are willing to accept their responsibility as leaders of anchor institutions. And think of your leadership team in this environment.
You have the legitimacy that allows you to convene and enable. This is where we are and where we are headed as well. And the concept of “leadership team” is an adaptation to these evolving functions. You are part of an experiment whose dimensions are unknown. But, I know the purpose. Your goal is to build and strengthen community resilience where aspirational thinking is not founded in fear but in strength. As you grow into a leadership team, your responsibilities are to recognize the value and the power of convening and enabling, to reflect on that value, and foster a leadership team mindset that will encourage aspirational thinking.
John Nalbandian is retired faculty member from University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration. In addition to his academic career, he spent eight years on the Lawrence, Kansas, city council, including two terms as the council’s mayor. (firstname.lastname@example.org)