By Ken Pulskamp, Executive Director of the California City Management Foundation.
After decades of managing California cities and direct involvement with the California City Management Foundation, I’m (admittedly) a biased source when it comes to the question, “Is being a city manager worth it?” The “it” meaning an always-rising combination of internal and external pressures to perform and appease several masters simultaneously. The city manager profession has suffered occasional reputational hits, city managers are under increasing scrutiny year after year, and the tenure of the city manager position has dropped drastically in the past 30 years. All that being said: public service is truly the only place to make great change, and city managers can be the biggest change agents.
That concept is catching on in the younger generations. Just this past month, the California City Management Foundation hosted its annual “New and Future City Managers Seminar” in Newport Beach. The three-day event is an intensive time when younger/aspiring city managers receive mentoring from a handful of our state’s finest senior city managers and no questions are off limits. Every time, I am inspired by the end result: despite these younger leaders pulling back the curtains and getting an even clearer look at the challenges that lay ahead in their career path, they embrace that rocky road and challenge themselves to rise to the occasion.
Earlier this year, I shared some of the biggest challenges facing California cities and city managers with a mixture of current local government leaders and MPA students. It was natural for the conversation to take a blunt look at the issues local governments face, especially the ongoing revenue crisis. But, as the luncheon ended and I sat looking at the still-bright eyes of the students across from me, I was impressed by their unspoken attitude of, “Yes, that sounds tough. And we still want in.”
It is this exact unbridled optimism, hope and tenacity we need in the city management profession. The City of Bell scandal is a testament to the influence of a city manager and why city management matters. While a poor city manager can certainly do harm in a city, a good city manager has the ability to change cities in very positive ways. One of the most important powers of a city manager is the ability to convene other decision-makers and say “we have a problem,” then get to work on fixing that problem. Convening important people in the same room can make big things happen. This is the way a city manager can get others to share a vision and bring that vision to reality.
The next generation of city managers is full of visionaries and promising leaders. Preparing them to take on more responsibility and empowering them to solve problems will be especially important in preparation for two large shifts coming our way: the mass retirement of public servants (the “silver tsunami”), and the inevitable economic downturn. Our current economic recovery can’t last forever and, as Warren Buffett famously coined, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Now, during this calm before the outgoing tide, is the perfect time for senior city managers and city councils to combine efforts to pave the way for the tough times ahead. Younger city managers are eager and willing to tackle challenges head-on and find innovative solutions to problems. We need the best and brightest in the next generation of public servants, and they will need our help to ensure they are set up to succeed.
So, is being a city manager worth it? Without a doubt. Being a city manager can feel like a thankless job at times and I took my fair share of criticisms and beatings, but I’m still proud to say I worked in government and was a public employee. Government provides the services and programs that we all depend on. Government won World War 2, built our nation’s highways, and put a man on the moon. Local governments have immense influence on our day-to-day lives as citizens, and we entrust the key leaders of our local governments to have our best interests in mind. I can’t think of a better calling, and I hope we will all continue to make the position of city manager an attractive and rewarding one for future generations of local government leaders.