Photos of Marc Ott and South African leaders

While each and every year is special in its own way, I believe 2024 will be the year that we begin to realize our global potential as an organization and as a profession. With the ICMA Executive Board’s approval of the Global Engagement Strategy and the global operating model, our vision of becoming the home for local government professionals worldwide is becoming real.

To provide support for this important journey, the recently appointed Governance Task Force will recommend the ideal governance structure to achieve our goals; a staff-led initiative is reimagining relationships with current and prospective partners around the world; and we have begun a series of programs focused on helping ICMA build a global mindset, communicate our global value proposition, identify potential global markets for ICMA products, programs, and services, and assess our current portfolio through a global lens.

In this month’s issue of PM, Jeanette Gass, ICMA’s senior program manager of global engagement, looks at the topics covered at the Institute of Local Government Management (iLGM) Conference held in South Africa. Jeanette’s article points out that although local government has only officially been part of the South African constitution for 25 years, the issues that leaders face parallel those of countries that have had formal municipal governments for centuries. Infrastructure, technology, employee retention, and unfunded mandates, to name a few, have vexed local government managers in every corner of the world. I was asked to speak about the ICMA Code of Ethics. Our South African colleagues shared that although they have a code of conduct, there is no enforcement mechanism. They stressed that corruption threatened to overshadow the many accomplishments that local governments have managed to achieve since the country became a democracy when apartheid collapsed in 1994.

Attending the conference was a life-changing experience for me in many ways. As always, I appreciated learning how others have addressed challenges and found success in local governance. These best practices can be helpful globally. On another level, visiting communities where the many vestiges of apartheid remain if not visible then just beneath the surface struck me deeply as a Black man. When reading news articles about South Africa, I had always wondered what the actual experience of living bound by such a system would be like. We had the opportunity, thanks to our hosts, to find out. We toured through Johannesburg’s Soweto neighborhood, which had been a separate, segregated city created so people of color could service the white population of Johannesburg. We were able to hear stories firsthand about the treatment of non-white people. Today there remain churches, hospitals, and schools meant only for people of color.

Perhaps the thing that left the deepest impression on me was our visit to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela had been held for 18 of his 27 years in prison. It was difficult to hear about the horrific treatment of political leaders including Ghandi, and the tour guides were remarkable storytellers. In fact, we learned that they themselves were former inmates. At one point, I stepped into a cell similar to the one that Mandela had been held in and felt for an instant what it would have been like to be physically contained in such a space for so much of one’s life. The power of that moment remains with me to this day.

In traveling through Cape Town, a thriving city with a healthy tourist industry, I was often overlooked or outright ignored by people, including Blacks who worked in the service sector. The challenges our colleagues face became clear to me — although the nation has made great strides since apartheid was dismantled, it would most likely take generations to erase the cultural and social barriers that stand in the way of true equality, and until a city or town can avail itself of the potential in all of its residents, it cannot truly thrive.

The longstanding partnership between iLGMA and ICMA demonstrates the kinds of exchanges that can only grow the profession of local government leadership and management. By engaging with one another, we can accelerate innovation and drive true and lasting change in our cities, counties, and towns. We can ultimately achieve our desired outcome of making ICMA an effective, diverse, inclusive, and global organization.

Photo of Marc Ott


MARC A. OTT is CEO/Executive Director of ICMA, Washington, D.C.

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