Making Democracy (and Public Administration) Work: An Exchange of Ideas Among City Managers

Back to Issue

By Mike McGrath

For one city administrator in a small South Dakota town, a moment of illumination came during a city council meeting. There was a request by residents of a certain neighborhood with traffic problems that the city to install a digital radar sign to help enforce the speed limit. The discussion began inauspiciously with a citizen standing up, pointing at the city administrator, and saying, “I know he doesn’t support it.”

Though it was true the administrator was not a fan of digital traffic signs—they can be difficult to maintain and keep in working order—it bothered him that the conversation began with a citizen assuming he would oppose his idea.

He recalled how it was drilled into him at public administration school that, “as a city manager you are hired to be the expert, the one that had the answers, to make recommendations and decisions based on your experience and your education. I think I have been putting too much pressure on myself over the course of my career to be that person, and there was kind of a weight lifted off my shoulders when I had this realization that I wasn’t the one who always had to have the answers.”

The manager shared this anecdote during a Making Democracy Work Institute (MDW) “learning exchange,” a joint project of the International City/County Management Association and the Kettering Foundation. In 2019 and 2020, a group of local government managers met twice a year to trade ideas and experiences on innovative forms of citizen engagement and democratic governance, and in some cases, to unlearn some of the lessons they may have been taught in their M.P.A programs.

The name of the project echoes the title of a book by the political scientist Robert Putnam. Making Democracy Work was a study of regional governments in Italy. Putnam and his research associates tried to understand why some of these startup regional governments seemed to be working better than others. What they found is that regions with active civic associations and mutual aid societies tended to be better governed.

The active ingredient for a successful democracy seemed to be active citizens with strong, reciprocal bonds of social capital and trust. Although opinion polls suggest that citizens have more trust in local governments than in the federal government, opinion polls don’t tell us everything, and judging from the observations and concerns of most of the MDW participants, the relationship between citizens and government is often fraught with tension and distrust.

“The learning exchanges offered a unique and highly valuable opportunity for insights from colleagues in the fields of research, academia and fellow practitioners,” said one participant in an email. “Beyond gaining knowledge on trends and best practices related to meaningful public engagement, I was inspired by my fellow exchange participants who shared innovative methods to truly co-create solutions to the most wicked problems facing our communities.”

When asked why they agreed to participate in the MDW experiment, several managers responded that they wanted to learn how to effectively engage their citizens in public policy and planning efforts. Some suggested that they were troubled by the amount of time and effort they were having to spend addressing the concerns of (their language) “squeaky wheels” and “bad actors.”

“I think it is the same challenge we see in a lot of communities across the country,” said one MDW participant. “Often times, people don’t want to participate for any number of reasons. They might not think they have a choice in the matter or any influence. They may be too busy or think that they don’t understand the topic, and therefore can’t add any value.”

“Sometimes,” she added, “what happens is the proverbial expression, ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease.’ And the squeaky wheel doesn’t always reflect the sentiments of the community as a whole, so we spend a fair amount of time talking about how to make conversations more appealing more accessible to our citizens as a whole.”

Each MDW participant was assigned a “coach” to help develop ideas and identify ways of engaging with citizens in their towns and cities, among them; Wendy Willis of Oregon’s Kitchen Table, Martin Carcasson, director of Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation, Peggy Merriss, a former city manager in Decatur, Georgia; and Cheryl Hilvert, a ICMA’s midwestern regional manager.

One participant took the opportunity to organize a series of meetings to resolve a conflict over the maintenance and ownership of a road. Half of the road was public and maintained by the city, and the other half was privately owned. There were disputes over who could access the road and who should be required to do maintenance.

The first meeting was described as “pretty rocky.” Most of the citizens were older and expressed an unwillingness to do multiple meetings or participate in what they considered “touchy feely stuff,” for instance, beginning the process by talking about the things they valued. “We were pretty sure it was going to blow up in our faces. There was a fair amount of hostility. People were pretty unhappy it was taking so long. They just wanted to hurry up and get it done.”

After conferring with coach Wendy Willis, she said, and getting some ideas, “we re-evaluated our situation and modified the meeting. The second day people were starting to better understand the process and we started to tiptoe around the values. We came back and held the third meeting and then we really started digging into the values and to vote on some of the outcomes they wanted.”

The MDW Institute’s combination of presentations, coaching, readings, roundtable discussions and informal sessions over drinks at the hotel created the environment for what would become a true learning community. Several of the participants noted the value of “learning from each other,” and the fact that there was a range of knowledge and experience among them when it came to public deliberation.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot by listening to the speakers and the staff type people,” said one participant, “but sometimes it’s not so much what we’re learning during the day in the program but those conversations at meals or on the bus.”

Although some of the participants came to the first exchange expecting to learn some “techniques” for engaging the community or dealing with gadflies, by the second or third gathering they began to understand that what they were learning about was more a way of looking at democracy, community and their relationships with citizens.

“The most interesting and counter intuitive lesson is to embrace the idea that we as local government leaders are not in control of the outcome of the process,” noted one manager in an email. “That is, through engagement, we might pursue an approach or outcome that we personally disagree with or that we never would have come up with on our own. This goes against everything I have learned over the years. City managers are hired particularly because of our expertise, analytical abilities, experience finding pathways through complex problem sets, etc. To let go of that training and trust the outcome to be determined through an engagement process…that has been the hardest and most interesting learning.”

One of the participants sought to put into practice concepts discussed at Kettering after the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, when communities across the country experienced demonstrations against structural racism and police violence. He began calling up pastors, NAACP leaders and others to find out how he could help. “I’m taking my city manager hat off,” he told them. “I’m here to be a partner in whatever action or conversation you think necessary for healing long-term.”

It was decided to hold an event at a local park, and in a city with a very small population, 400 people showed up for a three-hour event. “This was engaged citizens, not elected officials trying to put all this together and take credit,” he said.

Earlier in the year, the same manager completed his MDW-inspired project, an effort to consolidate local schools in a new complex, the first capital improvement project for local schools in more than 30 years in a town that prided itself on having among the lowest tax rates in the state. He used some of the ideas he learned in the exchanges to design a process by which the community could decide whether it wanted to raise its taxes to pay for much need school improvements.

This manager was one of the participants who began the MDW process hoping that he would learn some “techniques” to counter the baneful influence of bad actors. Instead, he found himself approaching his biggest challenge as a manager by asking the community to take ownership and make the decision. It was a successful process that earned him an Excellence in Municipal Government Award from the state’s city management association. He also was asked to give a “Spark Talk” to members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Although the official term of their participation ended, members of the cohort have agreed to keep exchanging ideas. “We really want to continue in some form or fashion,” said one participant. “I’m excited about continuing the learnings but also to continue the relationships we have with one another. It’s been an incredible resource and a fantastic side benefit to all of this.”

For 2021, ICMA’s leadership development program is working in partnership with the League and the Kettering Foundation to assemble a new cohort of managers to focus on how public managers and citizens can engage democratically to foster racial equity and inclusion.

Mike McGrath is Director of Research and Publications for the National Civic League and editor of the National Civic Review.

More from the issue

The mission of the National Civic League is to advance civic engagement to create equitable, thriving communities.

View All

Thank You to Our Key Partners