Change, Complexity, and Leadership Challenges

Date01 March 2018
Published date01 March 2018
Change, Complexity, and Leadership Challenges 311
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 78, Iss. 2, pp. 311–314. © 2018 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12917.
We better stop now, what s that sound? Everybody look—
what ’ s going down?
—Buffalo Springfield, 1967
W e look now, and what do we see? A rate
of change and complexity we have never
experienced. Maybe it is not unexpected
that amid this environment we see a reaction—a
foundational desire to connect to our identity, an
anchor in our lives. We can find this complexity
and an accelerated pace of change in the disciplines
of the administrative or operational world (think
“smart cities,” for example). On the other hand, in
the political arena, we find the challenge of grounding
our lives in a seemingly stable, simplistic world
that often produces “us and them.” It comes to a
head in the contemporary version of that enduring
theme—politics and administration—producing new
leadership challenges.
In this column, we chart with a broad brush what we
see happening in contemporary local government—
centered on what we are calling the gap between political
acceptability (politics) and administrative or operational
sustainability (administration). Then, we identify and
describe associated leadership challenges and the mind-
set and skills/talents needed to “bridge the gap.”
Bridging the gap is the essential prerequisite for
effective governance. Political acceptability focuses
on what it is we want to accomplish and the
dynamics around building support among competing
political initiatives. But can we do what we want
to accomplish, and can we do it over time? An
assumption is that this process of connecting politics
and administration begins with the political (vision,
mission, policy initiative). But in our experience,
that is not always the case. Frequently, the process
of improving a water treatment plant or virtually
any other infrastructure investment is initiated by a
need—an element of administrative sustainability—
and then the question of political will is engaged.
There is nothing new in setting out this dynamic
back-and-forth relationship. We understand that
without effective bridges between political and
administrative arenas, little is accomplished, and trust
in public servants—both political and professional—
erodes and the value of government itself can be
questioned. Acknowledging the tension surrounding
the need to maintain integrity in political and
administrative arenas, something is happening that is
making the gap between these two arenas—these two
mind-sets—more difficult to bridge, fostering new
leadership challenges.
To better understand the challenges faced in
connecting political acceptability and administrative
sustainability, we propose the metaphor of the
bridge, stimulating several observations. For example,
there is not one bridge; each policy initiative or
administrative/operational need may have its own
bridge, which may or may not be constructed on
a sound foundation and connect political and
administrative worlds. Some bridges will be longer
than others, suggesting a longer time span to make
connections. Some will be wider, suggesting more
parties on the bridge and maybe more potential for
“accidents.” Some bridges will be both long and wide.
And some may lead to nowhere!
Traditionally in council-manager government, we
expect the city manager to work the bridge. This
expectation is captured in the familiar graphic of a
governing body and administrative staff separated
by a city manager. But as the bridges multiply
and become longer and wider and invite more
engagement, the work often leads to dead ends. The
bridging task becomes more challenging (Nalbandian
et al. 2013 ).
Leadership Challenges
The first challenge focuses on roles and responsibilities,
particularly of department heads or the equivalent.
We used to describe the city manager and department
heads collectively as a “management team.
Robert J. O Neill , Jr.
John Nalbandian
John Nalbandian is emeritus professor,
School of Public Affairs and Administration,
University of Kansas. He was a longtime
faculty member in the public administration
program at the University of Kansas, which
focuses on educating students for careers
in local government. He served for 12 years
as chair of the public administration
department and was elected to two terms
on the city council in Lawrence, Kansas,
where he also served as mayor. He has been
widely recognized for his teaching, research,
and service. Presently, he works with local
governments throughout the country
sharing his learning.
Robert J. O Neill, Jr. is past executive
director of the International City/County
Management Association. He retired
from the organization in December 2016.
Previously, he served as county executive
in Fairfax County, Virginia (1997–2000),
where he was credited with developing a
series of strategies aimed at revitalizing
older residential communities and
commercial areas as well as launching a
series of initiatives focused on performance
and results management. His “reinvention”
of the government of Hampton, Virginia,
as city manager (1984–97) was widely
recognized; his many accomplishments
included downtown and waterfront
revitalization initiatives as well as the
development of a nationally recognized
youth-at-risk program.
Change, Complexity, and Leadership Challenges
Stephen E. Condrey,
Associate Editor

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