Bay State puts municipal management on national stage

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From The Beacon, September 2013

In just a few weeks, Massachusetts will serve as the host to thousands of city and town managers and department heads from across the country, as the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) comes to town for its 2013 annual conference.

The conference will command center stage in Boston on Sept. 22-25, with “Revolutionary Leadership” as the theme – an excellent play on words, since the phrase emphasizes the Bay State’s unique historical roots and underscores today’s urgent need for innovation and cutting-edge solutions.

The meeting will attract several thousand local government leaders and will give Massachusetts officials a special chance to access several days of workshops, speakers and networking with colleagues from across the nation. While the ICMA directly serves appointed city, town and county managers, this will also be a terrific opportunity for elected leaders, including mayors, selectmen and councillors, to take part in outstanding sessions on major issues and challenges confronting their communities. Certainly, elected leaders will want to encourage their professional department heads to attend, learn and connect with their peers from all 50 states.

The ICMA’s conferences are highly regarded for their substantive educational offerings, and this year’s event will not disappoint. Workshops and general sessions will cover dozens of issues, including civility, sustainability, service delivery, performance measurement, economic development, technology, management skills and much more.

If you have not yet registered for the ICMA conference and want to learn more, you can do so by going to icma.org and visiting their conference page.

The last time Massachusetts hosted an ICMA conference was in 1991 – more than two decades ago.

A lot has changed during this time, especially in the structure and management capacity at the local level. Cities and towns have taken dramatic steps to modernize their management and service delivery systems, and ICMA attendees will certainly admire what our municipal leaders have accomplished.

In cities, mayors have implemented sweeping changes to create dynamic and efficient organizational structures, professionalized their department operations, and established systems to measure performance and seek continuous improvement.

In towns, selectmen and town meetings have increasingly streamlined municipal operations and consolidated administrative and management functions to establish a professional and accountable system to serve their residents and taxpayers in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Professional town and city administrators and managers have worked in collaboration with their elected leaders to tame the “hydra” (the old multi-headed structure with dozens of independent boards and offices) and create a modern and responsive organizational structure.

This drive by city and town leaders to professionalize government operations has been necessary for several reasons, the first and most obvious being the increasingly complex demands imposed on municipalities. Federal, state and court-mandated regulations and laws have become enormously detailed and unwieldy, and volunteer government, the system that thrived throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th, was not able to keep up with the bureaucratic mandates and micro-management rules established by state and federal lawmakers and expanding agencies.

The second and more subtle reason why professionalization has been inevitable is the dramatic change in our economy. The days of single-wage-earner families and 35-hour workweeks are long gone. The volunteers of the past had much more discretionary time to step forward and serve their communities, which allowed them to spend hours and hours administering every last detail of municipal operations. In today’s 24/7 economy, families are running at full speed to keep up with the demands of their jobs and family life, which means that the old system of volunteer administration is a thing of the past. In today’s world, elected leaders must rely on full-time professionals who can handle the operations, personnel and day-to-day decision-making.

A third reason why cities and towns have professionalized their operations during the past several decades is because the “New Normal” era really began with the passage of Proposition 2½. In 1980, when the voters of Massachusetts embraced one of the nation’s first property tax limitation laws, it became clear that municipalities would have to embark on a permanent campaign to improve their operational effectiveness. With local revenues capped, municipalities are constantly seeking maximum savings and efficiencies.

While Prop. 2½ has created many challenges and squeezed local capacity, the drive toward professional and modern management is arguably one of the most positive outcomes of the law. Since 1980, Massachusetts citizens have taken action to dramatically increase the number of town managers, town administrators and mayors. Back then, there were approximately 100 officials with one of those titles, and today there are close to 300. In addition, the number of professional department heads in cities and towns had increased exponentially.

Indeed, over the past 30 years, the quiet municipal revolution has been the transition to modern and professional management in our cities and towns. And by all accounts this change has been wildly popular with citizens, as poll after poll shows that local residents believe in and trust their local officials and municipal workers at very high levels, outperforming their counterparts at the state and federal level by wide margins.

And so, as ICMA heads into town in September with its message of “Revolutionary Leadership,” Massachusetts leaders, both elected and appointed, should be very proud of the silent revolution that has taken place right here. Our cities and towns have embraced modern, accountable and effective professional management systems, and this has benefited the taxpayers and residents of our communities in countless ways.