A few years ago, I was exploring the shelves of a “vintage” bookstore. On one of the dusty shelves, I stumbled across a book called The City Manager: A New Profession by Harry Aubrey Tomlin, written in 1915 at the dawn of the Council-Manager form of government. It was a fascinating look back at a time when the city management profession was viewed as a reform movement and city managers as aggressive change agents who were dramatically transforming how cities worked.
Political management had ransomed the future, created raging inefficiencies, and produced wide-spread corruption (think back to Tammany Hall in your 9th grade history class). Tomlin described City Managers as revolutionaries who were changing the world for the better. Predominately a nuts and bolts primer on professional management, one passage in particular was pure poetry:
City government is experiencing a civic revolution. We have run suddenly upon a novel age where tried formulas are nil, where old landmarks are transformed into strange beacon lights and the new anchorage is yet afar off. Revolution in municipal government is but one of our ventures into the virgin land of untried things. The seeking of the truer, cleaner and the finer, of the less wasteful and more efficient is the advertisement of our national restlessness.
The failure of the old has stung our pride into a pilgrimage to find something newer, nobler, and more satisfying than that which the old government could give, with its incompetence, its sloth, its extravagance. From this genesis, the new order sprang. The City Manager plan is part of this more modern trend of thought.
As I read and reread Tomlin’s description of the political and operational context within which the Council Manager form of government was established, I realized we are once again in an age marked by national restlessness. But this time, the loudest voices cry out for a return to politically-driven management decisions, dilution of the City Manager into little more than an administrative executor of political decisions, and a leadership style that can best be described as “lick your finger and hold it up to the wind”.
Cities who aspire to excellence must resist these forces of mediocrity and political cronyism which tempt us to return to the old ways “with its incompetence, its sloth, its extravagance”. Instead, local government managers must recapture the sense of reformation that accompanied the founding of the profession. We must once again become revolutionaries who passionately seek “the truer, the cleaner, the finer… the less wasteful and more efficient”.