Commentary: The Roles of Local Government Managers: A View from the Trenches

AuthorScott Lazenby
Date01 January 2015
Published date01 January 2015
Scott Lazenby is city manager
for the City of Lake Oswego, Oregon,
and adjunct professor in the Hatf‌i eld
School of Government at Portland State
University. He completed his dissertation,
“City Management Theory and Practice:
A Foundation for Educating the Next
Generation of Local Government
Administrators,” in 2009.
62 Public Administration Review • January | February 2015
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 1, pp. 62. © 2014 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12315.
Scott Lazenby
City of Lake Oswego, Oregon
Portland State University
Even if our profession sometimes downplays it,
and academia may not appreciate it, I suspect
that my colleagues in local government would
readily agree with Kimberly L. Nelson and James
H. Svara’s point: city and county managers play an
important and fairly active role in policy setting, and
probably always have.
is observation is of little help to us. It is like telling
the parched plane crash survivor crawling over a sand
dune, “Look what I’ve discovered: you’re in a desert
and you need water!”
But this is precisely why their message is so critical.
ey are correct in their assertion, and they back it up
with plenty of evidence. I can imagine the response
from local government managers to our scholarly col-
leagues would be, “Listen to them, stop debating this,
and bring us solid, research-based tools we can use to
succeed in this reality.
Here are just a couple of examples. First, I have
observed that governing bodies are actually more willing
to follow the policy advice of the chief executive of‌f‌i cer
(CEO) when they know the CEO will fully empower
them with the f‌i nal decision and carry out whatever
decision they make without hesitation. To actually cre-
ate this situation, though, seems to take a wide variety
of skills on the part of the manager, even including
body language during a city council meeting. I know
there is much that a multidisciplinary f‌i eld such as
public administration can teach us on ef‌f ective interper-
sonal skills to use in interacting with a governing body.
Second, few policy decisions in the public realm
are made with the kind of rationality that good
scholars would use in approaching a complex com-
munity problem. In this nonrational environment,
how exactly does a manager recognize and advocate
a “good” solution to a problem? And how does the
manager create a little more space for evidence-based
solutions to problems without of‌f ending the torch-
and-pitchfork mob?
is kind of work is important to the f‌i eld because,
while the politicians that f‌i ll the CEO position in the
state and national governments receive more attention,
the professional CEOs appointed by governing bodies
account for, by numbers, the vast majority of govern-
mental chief executives, at least in the United States.
is includes city and county managers, certainly,
but also the CEOs of special districts. School super-
intendents, by my own observation as well as studies
I have come across, have an even more active role in
the policy domain, and they are less willing than city
managers to trust their elected of‌f‌i cials with it.
ere seems to be an explosion of research by psy-
chologists and sociologists on how we can be more
ef‌f ective in working with other people and groups of
people. Much of this work leads to surprising, if not
counterintuitive, conclusions; common sense and past
practices have failed us.  ose in my profession appear
to get access to it through business publications or
books aimed at private sector managers rather than
the public administration literature. But the public
administration f‌i eld could at least help apply this
research to the challenges we face in working in the
policy domain and helping our communities come
together to tackle dif‌f‌i cult problems.
Finally, as critical as this role is, even in larger cities,
the manager spends a great amount of time leading
and managing the organization, dealing with dif‌f‌i -
cult personnel problems, and providing ef‌f‌i cient and
ef‌f ective services.  is is conf‌i rmed by a number of
the scholars whom Nelson and Svara cite and, more
recently, by Richard Clay Wilson in Rethinking Public
Administration:  e Case for Management. So my plea
to our colleagues in the academy is to help us be ef‌f ec-
tive in the role that Nelson and Svara have identif‌i ed.
We know that we are in the desert, and we do not
need to know whether the temperature is 100 or 110
degrees; what we really need is water. But we also need
your help, now more than ever, in tapping into the
research that will make us more ef‌f ective in managing
increasingly complex organizations.
e Roles of Local Government Managers:
A View from the Trenches

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