Governing in a Disruptive Environment

Attendees at the 2022 ICMA Annual Conference in Columbus, Ohio, were given the opportunity to preview the new ICMA publication, The Effective Local Government Manager. John Nalbandian and Bob O'Neill gave workshop attendees a look into the first chapter of this publication that they coauthored, and by using the words and perspectives of local government management survey respondents, they began the workshop by identifying the three key disruptive forces that affect local governments today: national politics filtering in local governance, technology/social media, and social issues.

These disruptive forces have complicated the ability of local governments to establish a connection between what is "politically acceptable" and what is "operationally sustainable," the balance of which being a fundamental prerequisite for effective governance. Nalbandian and O'Neill dove into the mechanics of how responding to these disrupters and finding balance directly affects local government roles and responsibilities, structures, and processes.

The Three Disrupters

National Politics Filtering into Local Governance 

The first disrupter to the harmony between what is politically acceptable and operationally sustainable is how national politics filters into local governance. Perspective from Julia Novak, former city manager and current local government consultant, highlighted the shift between “all politics being local” and “all politics being national.” Consequentially, the deep division seen in national politics has seeped into local governing bodies, ever widening the gap. Whether it be local elections being influenced by outside funding, or those running for city council wanting to be legislators rather than members of the governing body, the “art of politics” as it was formerly known is becoming unrecognizable.

Technology and Social Media

Disrupter number two comes by way of technology and social media. Interpretation from Mark Israelson, city manager of Plano, Texas, concluded that at the end of the day, community residents are consumers and local governments are service providers. As a result, residents have expectations as to how they want to interact with their service providers, similar to that of how they expect to interact with a private sector service provider. The lack of investment in technology or social media knowledge can further widen the gap.

In terms of social media specifically, that can play a part in driving a wedge between residents and local government officials by amplifying the voices of disgruntled residents. That resident who seemingly always has something to complain about at the city council meeting can garner a much larger audience through social media, and local government officials that do not have a presence on social media or know how to adequately respond to potential negative messaging on these platforms will experience some disconnect.

Social Issues

The final disrupter is the various social issues that we face. An eye-opening outlook from Sherilyn Lombos, city manager of Tualatin, Oregon, called attention to the "racial reckoning" that recent years have ushered into our society. This is driving another look at our institutions and how they have been perpetuators of racist policies, practices, and behaviors that have propagated resident distrust in institutions and the people within them. Whether it be policing "best practices" being called into question, or inherently racist policies in contracting, housing, etc., the people at the helm of local government organizations are being held at a distance and looked at with skepticism by their residents. 

Paths to Reconciliation

In order to rectify the issues that these disrupters present, there are three paths to reconciliation, through the roles and responsibilities of political and administrative actors, the structures that encourage developing the skills/mindset where problems to be solved drive the work, and the processes that are imperative for engagement, incorporating public values and deliberative methods.

Roles and Responsibilities

The roles and responsibilities of the managers need to be clear to the assistants and department heads. Debra Figone, former city manager of San Jose, California, offered that with the manager being expected to be more “outward facing” and acclimated to the elected officials and community alike, assistants and department heads must take on more of an “interpretation” and gap-bridging role in order to effectively assist the manager in executing council and community goals.


Insight from Doug Matthews, city manager of Grand Rapids, Michigan, uncovered that solving different “wicked problems” in government, from homelessness to economic equity and so forth, demand leadership from all teams both inside and outside of government. Since such problems are far more of an undertaking than simply managing from an organizational standpoint, it is essential to cultivate and nurture meaningful relationships with durable partners across the community. Darrin Atteberry, city manager of Fort Collins, Colorado, emphasized that durable partners can be found in both private and public sector organizations and are mutually beneficial relationships that should be nurtured and reinforced so you can be champions for each other in achieving a common goal.

Processes and Engagement 

With the onset of public access to data and other information, organization staff are no longer the only ones who are experts on community issues, now residents also harness the power to become experts on these topics. As such, O'Neill shared that staff should shift their focus away from simply delivering information/data, and instead to validating the good/accurate information out there and collaborating with those in the community to reach decisions. Government/community relations are ever evolving from the standard of information delivery, and a new era of collaboration between government and citizen is upon us.

Great Organizations and Great Leaders

Characteristics of Great Organizations

In order to continue on an upward trend of handling these disruptive forces with grace, great organizations should strive to:

  1. Be mission-driven/value-based.
  2. Always be adaptable.
  3. Select talented people who fill the culture.
  4. Invest in and develop people.
  5. Support strong performers and high-performing teams.
  6. Leverage talent.
  7. Focus on both personal and organizational accountability.
  8. Reinforce the meaning of the work done.
  9. Resist the constraints of job titles/descriptions.
  10. Always challenge the organization to be better.
Characteristics of Great Leaders

It is the leader’s duty to instill meaning in the organization, putting the community first and the department second. To be the best leader possible for the organization, leaders should strive to be:

  1. Meaningful/purposeful.
  2. Empathetic.
  3. Humble.
  4. Agile/adaptive.
  5. Incremental/revolutionary.
  6. Equitable.
  7. Decisive.
  8. Courageous.
  9. Symphonically skilled.
  10. Able to make a connection between story and data.

Great leaders make great organizations and great organizations help shape great leaders. It is up to the leaders of today to chart the course through these new disruptive environments to make a better tomorrow for the communities they serve. Nostalgia cannot run a community, so it is up to leaders to both acknowledge and reconcile these disruptive forces by addressing the loss that the people may feel when change is needed and advocating for viable solutions that are best for the community’s future.

You can purchase 2022 ICMA Digital for on-demand access to the keynotes and over 140 educational sessions until December 31, 2022. Access is complimentary to attendees of the in-person event at Columbus.

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!