No history of American politics and government would be complete without a chapter on the National Civic League. A roster of past chairs of the league’s board of directors would read like a Who’s Who of civic leaders through the years.
Originally known as the National Municipal League, the organization was founded during a period of social, political and economic turmoil. As the historian Charles Beard would later write:
“The country was then in the midst of a periodic depression. Strikes and unrest were abroad in the land. By leaps and bounds cities had been growing in population, wealth, poverty, slums and degradation. During the preceding years scandals and frauds in national, state and local government had been unearthed in shocking forms.”
The date was 1894, and a group of leading municipal reformers had gathered in Philadelphia to discuss the future of city government. Among those founders were some of the leading thinkers and activists of the Progressive Era, a list that included Theodore Roosevelt, Louis Brandeis, Frederick Law Olmsted and Mary Mumford.
It is important to remember how differently local governments were organized in the late nineteenth century. Some cities had bicameral “legislatures” with dozens of aldermen. The management of municipal departments was fractured across an array of directly elected or appointed offices, everything from comptroller to dog catcher. Governors and state legislatures interfered freely in local affairs.
A Municipal Plan
Lines of accountability were unclear. Waste, inefficiency, patronage and corruption were widespread. When the league adopted the first “Municipal Plan” in 1898, its provisions included a “home rule charter” to give more power and autonomy to local officials, a unicameral city council with nonpartisan elections, and a hands-on mayor to appoint and remove department heads. City employees were to be hired and promoted under the merit system. Although many local governments would eventually embrace the “strong mayor” plan for municipal reform, its success wasn’t immediate. Some cities were opting for a different plan that had emerged on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
In 1900 a terrible hurricane hit the island city of Galveston, Texas, sending a six foot tide across the entire island. Nearly the entire city was destroyed, and there were no functioning city departments. To cope with the disaster, the governor of Texas appointed a five member commission to oversee the rebuilding of the city. The commission was so successful, it was made permanent, and a new form of government—the city commission—the born. Other communities began to follow suit, first Houston, then Dallas, Des Moines and Kansas City.
Professional City Management
What later emerged was a synthesis of the two competing models. In 1910, a municipal reform advocate named Richard Childs was asked to contribute ideas for improving Pittsburgh’s government. Childs suggested reducing elected government to the city’s select council and to make all other positions appointed. The most original part of his plan, however, was the appointment of a professional manager for city departments, thus separating policy from administration.
The plan, as envisioned by Childs, consisted of a five-member city council, chosen by non-partisan at-large elections with a “weak mayor,” who was to be elected from and by the council. The council would have total authority when it came to formulating policy, but day-to-day management decisions would be made by an appointed city manager who served at the pleasure of the council. The beauty of the plan was its simplicity – and the very obviousness of its delineation of authority. “Democracy,” Childs insisted, “consists of controlling public offices – not necessarily in electing them.”
In 1915 the National Municipal League published its second edition of the Model City Charter, and adopted the city manager, city council plan instead of the strong mayor form. From 1918 to 1923, more than 150 cities adopted the plan. By 1930, one out of every five cities with populations over 10,000 adopted the plan. Today it is the most common form of government among municipalities.
During the coming decades, the National Municipal League would expand the scope of its research and advocacy, publishing models for county government, voter registration, election administration and state constitutions. The league was also an early advocate of proportional representation, regional governance and fair redistricting and reapportionment procedures. Through its journal, the National Municipal Review (today the National Civic Review), leading civic activists and reformers published articles on these issues.
Recognizing Civic Accomplishment
In 1949, a reporter named Jean James was assigned to cover the then National Municipal League’s National Conference on Government in St. Paul, Minnesota. James approached league officers, including pollster George Gallup, and explained that she wanted to write a feature article about the best-governed cities in America. Gallup suggested that such a judgment was too difficult to make. Intrigued by the idea, league officers countered with a proposal, as Gallup later described it, “to name eleven cities in which they knew the citizens themselves had initiated and completed some action of major benefit to the entire community. And so the All-America Cities contest was born.”
The league formed a partnership with James’s employer, the Minneapolis Tribune, which sponsored the award for two years. The idea of the award program was simple. Each year cities would request a formal application from the program. The applications would be filled out, sent back to the league, and reviewed by a team of judges. From all the applications, up to twenty-two finalists would be selected. Each of the finalists would then send a representative to the annual National Conference on Government. At the conference, the finalists would make presentations to a jury made of leaders from civic, business, and labor organizations. The jury would select eleven winners of the award. Today there are only ten.
Municipal reform and anti-corruption efforts continued to play an important part of the community projects highlighted by the award, but concerns with infrastructure needs, poverty, racial justice, and environmental issues began to surface in subsequent decades. Last year, the sixtieth anniversary of the award program, the ten winners addressed a range of critical issues such as economic development, youth civic engagement, education and downtown revitalization.
Beyond City Hall
“For nearly 60 years the National Municipal League has carried on a continuous struggle to improve government at the local and state levels,” wrote the pollster George Gallup, the league’s chair in 1953. “It is probable that within the next 60 years the League will be meeting again in this same city. And, if it does, it is a good guess that two of the chief problems under consideration will be how to improve the structure and administration of local and state governments and how to arouse citizens to greater activity in governmental affairs.”
Gallup’s prediction was prescient. By the late 1970s, the league was undergoing something of an identity crisis. In part the victim of its own success, the league’s model of a small city council and an appointed professional city management had become the norm. The need to advocate the council-manager form, a major emphasis of the organization, seemed less pressing. At the same time, the passion for structural reforms such as proportional representation had declined in the U.S. as other issues arose. In 1986, the league undertook a strategic planning process to explore new futures directions. The name was changed to the National Civic League. Three years later, the league headquarters was moved from New York City to Denver, Colorado.
Civic Leaguers began to explore the question of why some communities seemed to do better than others when facing local challenges. What were the “capacities” and “competencies” missing from the communities that seemed to struggle? “A common thread in successful communities is the ongoing struggle through formal and informal processes to identify common goals and meet individual and community needs and aspirations,” wrote John Parr, who served as league president during that period. “Successful communities are blurring the boundaries between government, business, and the nonprofit sector.”
Working together, the league’s board and staff developed a community assessment tool known as the Civic Index listing ten components of civic health, including such things as citizen participation, community leadership, government performance, volunteerism and philanthropy intercommunity cooperation. “Civic infrastructure is a qualitative concept intended for use in evaluating the societal and political fabric of a community,” wrote Chris Gates, who would later serve as NCL president, “how decisions are made, how citizens interact with each other and government, and how problems in the community are confronted.”
NCL began to adapt these ideas on civic infrastructure and capacity building to other programs. The civic index would help All-America City Award applicants assess their civic strengths and weaknesses. The Community Services program was developed to provide technical assistance to communities that need help to develop inclusive forms of strategic planning, visioning and community problem-solving. Countless other communities have bought or downloaded NCL publications such as the Civic Index, the Community Visioning and Strategic Planning Handbook, Civic Infrastructure: A New Approach to Improving Community Life or Making the Case for Collaborative Problem Solving.
NCL was at the forefront of what some observers have called a “civic renewal movement” that emerged during the 1990s. More and more communities were finding new ways of engaging citizens in public planning, problem-solving and decision-making efforts, some of them with the help of NCL’s Community Services program. The league’s insights on civic infrastructure, community building and collaborative problem-solving influenced other programs, including the All-America City Award, the Health Communities Program, the New Politics Program and the MetLife Foundation Ambassadors In Education awards.
Today the National Civic League continues to pursue its mission of strengthening democracy by increasing civic capacity in our communities. In 2007, Gloria Rubio-Cortés became president of NCL, strengthening the organizational focus on issues such as environmental sustainability, racial equity, immigrant integration, transportation oriented development and fiscal sustainability. “NCL’s mission has evolved over time,” notes Rubio-Cortés who has a background in civic rights advocacy and Hispanic issues, “but the central focus has remained the same—how to engage diverse groups of people democratically and effectively to address the challenges facing their communities.”