Bruce!: (Romer, that is): A conversation with The Boss
Bruce Romer is the rare public servant who has managed both city and county governments. It is a handy bit of experience for the person who, this month, takes the reins as president of the International City/County Management Association.
Romer got his first taste of local government management while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Graduate School. As part of an internship, he served as assistant manager for a suburban Philadelphia community. He received his master’s degree in government administration in 1968.
Since then, Romer has served as the city manager/administrator for Brighton, Mich.; Sidney, Ohio; Davenport, Iowa; and Rockville, Md. He was appointed to his current position – chief administrative officer for Montgomery County, Md. – in 1995.
In addition to being an ICMA officer, Romer is vice president of and a board member for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments; a board member for the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority; and a member of the Urban Consortium Steering Committee of Washington, D.C.-based Public Technology Inc.
You’re in a unique position to comment on the similarities and differences between city and county management.
In terms of public management, I think the historic lines of demarcation between city and county government are, fortunately, not as distinct as they once were. The ease with which one can move from a city environment to a county environment is surprising – it certainly was for me. The transition was more one of size and of function than it was of legal structure.
City and county managers should not feel pigeonholed or tunneled into staying in a particular form of local government. While the traditional council-manager form of government may well be the preferred form, one does not have to have that form in place for professional local government management to flourish. Professional management is and should be professional management, regardless of structure.
What are the major issues that local managers are facing in terms of administration and operations?
Certainly the explosion of technology-related activities has increased the burden on public managers to be on top of technological issues. I’m not suggesting that public managers need to become detailed operational technocrats, but, what we need as managers is a sufficient appreciation of that industry – of that capability – so that we can manage it efficiently, avoiding duplication or voids.
Fifty or 60 years ago, the city management profession was grounded in engineering. The first city managers were engineers by trade because there was so much to do in engineering. Our profession has [evolved] so that city/county managers may not be engineers, but they have a good appreciation of how to manage engineering-related things. Similarly, as the IT phenomenon continues to explode, managers need to be able to manage technology.
Also, with the good economy, we’re hearing about increasing difficulties in maintaining a talented and robust work force. It’s particularly acute in some of the technological classifications, but it is not exclusive to that. As an example, [Montgomery County] is having problems finding communications people: 911 operators, telephone-answering individuals. [Emergency communications] is a very high-stress job with difficult hours and difficult working conditions. That’s been a real problem for us. So, depending on the type of operations, managers are having increasing difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified individuals.
I know that Hennepin County, Minn., is doing some interesting things with on-the-job training for retention. Also, in Montgomery County, we’ve launched a collaborative effort with other public agencies – such as the school district, the water utility, the county government and the community college – to recruit jointly for IT positions. [We also are providing] joint training to promote job retention.
There are many local government problems that are becoming increasingly difficult to solve vertically within an organization. One of the challenges we have as local government managers is to try to build the partnerships and the collaborative ventures [to address what have become] very horizontal problems.
The first thing that comes to mind is developing public-private partnerships, but I’m looking more these days at the non-profit sector, which is not totally public and not totally private. In a lot of communities, the non-profit sector is a growing and important force in the community. It runs the gamut from United Way agencies and local mental health operations to educational and charitable organizations. There’s fertile ground there for partnerships.
Also, cities and counties are spending a lot of time arresting any growing divides – either eliminating divides or closing them if they are beginning to exist – within their populations. The first one that comes to mind is the digital divide, but there are also economic and social divides – divides in the delivery of social services. I know counties are concerned about the availability of social services to all segments of their populations, particularly when there’s a growing diversity within a local government.
How would you say that the manager’s role has changed over the last few years?
The changing roles of state and federal government have just amplified the burden on local managers. Whereas, a decade or so ago, a local city or county manager could easily say “Well, that’s a state issue” or “That’s a federal issue,” we don’t always have that luxury these days. Some of the issues that once were not local now are clearly local, and, again, to address them, we need to look outside our organizations and collaborate. The managers who have figured this out are the managers that will succeed in the future.
Do you find that more managers are being asked to participate in a policy role as opposed to serving in a strictly administrative capacity?
Absolutely. That’s one of the long-term evolutions in our profession. Decades ago, it was forbidden for a city manager or a county manager to participate in policy making. There was always this strong line of demarcation between policy and administration.
Over the years, that line has been appropriately blurred. We moved into a time when city or county managers were expected to recommend policy, and that role continues to this day.
I think [that change] speaks to the strong partnership between the elected official and the professional. Where that works well, it works extremely well.
As the nation becomes more polarized politically – especially during an election year – what are the effects, if any, on local government and the manager?
We do see in some environments the increasing influence of partisan politics and changes from earlier models [of government]. As an example, you may have had At Large elections [that are now changing to] district or ward elections. Where mayors historically may have been selected from within the governing body, they now are being elected separately. So, yes, in some areas that phenomenon is happening, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a degradation of the local government process.
I’ve worked in both environments (communities where partisanship was present and others where it was not a factor), and I have always felt that the system can and does work well in terms of the partnership between the appointed professional and the elected policy maker. I know I’ve found it very useful to go back and reread the ICMA Code of Ethics. That’s where you find the important principles of the separation of policy and administration; the obligation of the member to recommend policy; the principles of fair dealing in personnel and procurement matters; and the absolute obligation to refrain from involvement in partisan politics. I think that provides the strongest underpinning of a sound relationship between the appointed professional and the local elected policy-maker.
Are there problems that a city manager might face that would not necessarily be faced by a county manager?
A lot of it depends on some structural issues and, of course, function. In a lot of environments, there’s clear delineation in function.
As an example, in many areas, social services are provided exclusively by counties. Or there’s an overlapping role between the county and the city in providing social services. Where that’s the case, a city manager would not necessarily have developed that particular skill set.
Similarly, many cities are much more responsible for urban law enforcement than a county would be. So that’s where a city manager would have to spend more resources or more personal time on that than a county manager would.
I don’t think that’s critical. There’s a lot to be said for the notion that a manager is a manager is a manager … . With the appropriate collection of talented individuals performing those functions, a manager should be able to make that transition [between city and county].
What is the one thing a manager would want the council or commission to know about the manager’s job?
A lot of managers would want to encourage their governing bodies to let go – to avoid the propensity to micromanage the operation. The role of setting policy is so important, but the reason they hire a professional administrator is so that he or she can implement those policies using the skills, abilities and resources of the organization. It actually enhances accountability to let go; let the manager manage, and hold him or her accountable.
What about residents? What would the manager like them to know?
Many times, there’s a presumption of bad intent about government. It’s sometimes fueled by the media, and we find that we have to fight that more than we’d like. We always want our residents to have the feeling that, in addition to being responsive to their needs, their local government is responsible in the management of their resources.
You look across this country, and you find thousands and thousands of examples of local governments that are very well-managed … . Millions of our citizens live in those communities, and I guess we want them to know that they’re benefiting from that. They should not get caught up in this presumption of bad intent.
What is your assessment of performance measuring and benchmarking? Are they useful? What is their impact, if any, on local government?
I think performance measurement is good, and I think that, as measurements become refined, the broader benefit will be the use of those benchmarks by small or medium-sized communities.
It’s not for everybody because, to do it effectively, it takes a commitment of resources that might not be available in some areas. But hopefully some of those that are doing some of the pioneering work can point the way for a lot of others.
Phoenix is doing some very good work in [performance measurement], and Kansas City, Mo., also has done some work. Bellevue, Wash., has done some really interesting work on benchmarking.
The ICMA Best Practices Symposium, which is three years old, certainly speaks to the increasing importance and popularity of performance measurement. It is an annual symposium, and they present about three or four actual case studies. It’s a very interactive conference, and you come away understanding a lot of the tools for [performance measurement].
(The next symposium is scheduled for April 2001 in Newport, R.I. For more information, contact ICMA at (202) 289-4262, or visit the association’s web site at www.icma.org.)
As president of ICMA, what are your priorities?
ICMA has a new strategic plan, and I hope to be able to implement that in the coming year. That plan calls for a greater commitment to professional development and a much higher level of education and advocacy for professional local government management.
The plan also calls for increased connectivity between ICMA and its members through technology. I’m very excited about that – very interested in the area of technology. So we’re going to be looking at ways to do an even better job of connecting with our members.
Thirdly, the plan calls for a new venture in voluntary “credentialling” within the membership. It’s been discussed and debated for many years, and, in the coming year, my task and the board’s task is to lend flesh to the concept: What does it mean, and how are we going to roll out a voluntary [program] that makes sense?
What are the federal concerns for ICMA in the coming year?
We’ve been very involved in the Internet taxation issue, along with the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties. I predict that we will continue to spend time on that. Also, our long-standing tradition of [preserving] local home rule and decision-making on taxation is always in our package.