What It Takes to Be a Professional Local Government Manager

A quick guide for anyone who's ever wondered how to become a professional local government manager.

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Why Choose a Career as a Professional City, Town, or County Manager?

A career as a professional local government manager is challenging--but extremely rewarding. Few other careers offer the opportunity to have such a positive impact on your community.

As the needs of our cities, towns, and counties have become more complex, so has the job of professional local government managers and administrators. Back in the day, these individuals were recruited from the ranks of civil engineers, who were trained to build and maintain the community’s bridges, roads, and water systems. Today’s managers and administrators also possess the management “know-how” to build strong communities, if not from the ground up, then by ensuring the continuous improvement of community services.

What Skills Do Professional Local Government Managers Bring to Their Communities?

Economically strong, high-quality-of-life communities don’t just happen. They require a vision, a lot of planning, and the professional execution of those plans. City, town, and county managers and administrators draw on a wealth of experience and a multitude of skills to get the job done, including

  • Personnel administration: Providing direction and leadership to department heads and those who provide direct services to the community. 
  • Management of public funds: Ensuring the cost-effectiveness of programs, balancing budgets, and securing the financial health of the community.
  • Program and policy implementation: Working with elected officials and community leaders to achieve common goals and objectives.
  • Service delivery coordination: Anticipating and planning for a city, town, or county’s future needs.

Above all else, today’s professional city, town, and county managers and administrators bring to the communities they serve a commitment to maintaining the public trust and confidence in local government, achieving equity and social justice, affirming human dignity, and improving the quality of life for all.

Typical Qualifications and Experience

  • Many of today’s city, town, and county managers and administrators hold bachelor’s degrees in public administration, political science, or business. 
  • Increasingly, these individuals enter the profession with a master’s degree, often in public administration or a related field. According to ICMA's 2012 State of the Profession survey:
  • 59% of managers and administrators held a master’s degree (MPA, MBA, etc.)
  • An additional 6% had earned either a law or doctorate degree.
  • Managers often begin their careers in policy or administrative positions (budget or management analyst) and then serve as assistant manager before becoming a full manager.
  • City, town, and county managers also come from a variety of professional backgrounds, ranging from director of planning (4%) to director of finance (6%) to employment with the state/federal government (3%). Many of the managers surveyed (24%) indicated that they had held the position of assistant manager prior to assuming their current CAO position.
  • Most appointed local government managers are members of ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, and are bound by its Code of Ethics, which commits members to a set of ethical standards of honesty and integrity that go beyond those required by the law. Also, through its Voluntary Credentialing Program, ICMA recognizes individual members who are qualified by a combination of education and experience, adherence to high standards of integrity, and an assessed commitment to lifelong learning and professional development. ICMA members who meet these requirements may earn designation as an ICMA Credentialed Manager. 

How Do I Get Started?

Check Out ICMA's Career Resources

This section of the ICMA website offers:

  • Resources for job seekers, employers, students, and teachers.
  • Information on internships, fellowships, and coaching and mentoring.
  • A selection of career guides, wikis, and documents, including ICMA’s popular wiki on choosing a career in the field, Careers in Local Government Management.
Contact NASPAA

The National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) is the membership organization of graduate education programs in public administration, public policy, public affairs, and public and nonprofit management. NASPAA’s website offers comprehensive information on finding a school of public administration and earning a degree in the field.

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