Sustaining Community; Sustaining Our Profession

Federal, state, and local officials must make the ecological choices that address current needs and enhance the livability of our communities today without compromising the capacity of future generations to do the same.
by | October 18, 2006

Sustaining Our Communities in an Uncertain World was the theme of the September 2006 Annual Conference of ICMA, the premier local government leadership and management organization. As 4,000 of my colleagues, their guests and I shared information, networked, and enhanced our skills, I thought about the fact that so many elements of the conference converged under this theme, making the event "click" for me more than any other event in recent memory.

Sustaining the World

by Sustaining Our Communities

The click began with the pre-conference publication in the August issue of Public Management magazine of an article on sustainability by Michael Willis, general manager, Blue Mountains City Council, New South Wales, Australia.1Willis had chosen sustainability as one focus of his year as ICMA president.

In his article, Willis cited the old adage, "all politics are local," and discussed how, while debates on such mega-challenges as global warming had become more prominent within the international political arena, public servants must effectively tackle these issues at all levels of government.

What it means for those of us in the public sector is that we must make ecological choices at the federal, state, and local levels that address current needs and enhance the livability of our communities today without compromising the capacity of future generations to do the same. It translates into smart growth planning, effective environmental management, greenhouse gas emission reduction, and brownfields redevelopment. In his article, Willis described sustainability as elected and appointed officials adopting the kind of ecological mindset that integrates every environmental, social, and economic decision we make. 2

Sustaining Our Communities by Sustaining Our Profession

In his PM article, Willis envisions public-sector leaders as being in the "legacy business" of creating sustainable communities that encourage others to follow. 3

My second revelation related to the ICMA Annual Conference was that we are building the future sustainability of our communities by developing an enduring pool of the best and brightest to lead them.

We're all aware of the statistics that predict staggering turnover among public-sector managers as the baby boomers depart from their leadership positions and head toward retirement or less-demanding careers. Nearly 50 percent of ICMA members working in local government today are older than 50; many will retire within the next five to seven years. 4

What is the responsibility of public-sector leaders in ensuring the continuation of a strong profession that is well prepared to serve all levels of government? It comes down to the four strategies under which ICMA has organized its "Next Generation" outreach activities:

1. Promote awareness of the challenges and rewards of public-sector service and encourage individuals to consider careers in the field. Establish civic education programs that engage K-12 students in their governments, participate in college and university career fairs, and make professors in academic institutions aware of what public-sector employees do and why it has value.

2. Help new and early-career professionals land their first jobs in local government. Increase the number of public-sector internships, fellowships, and scholarships and reach out to the best and brightest individuals when recruiting for open positions.

3. Engage local government management professionals early in their careers. Implement changes in the public-sector workplace that address the needs of young professionals, including two-career families and those who value work-life balance.

4. Build the leadership pipeline by engaging and developing promising individuals so that they are prepared to step into leadership roles. Identify the best approach for meeting the leadership and skill-building needs of entry- and mid-level career staff, including mentoring and coaching programs and opportunities for core competency development.

These strategies work! As I interacted with the local government managers and staff who had traveled from communities throughout the world to join us at the ICMA conference, I was heartened by the fact that for the first time in years, a critical mass of new faces had appeared -- not just young people (i.e., age 40 and younger), but individuals from nontraditional cultures and ethnicities and other walks of life, including the military and private sector. The event felt less like a gathering of the faithful and more like an exciting opportunity to welcome new recruits to the challenging yet rewarding world of public service.

Leaving behind a public service legacy is one of the most important things we as local, state or federal leaders can do. Just as we must think globally and act locally on issues that affect our environment and communities, so too must we take responsibility for preparing and developing the next generation to sustain our profession and ensure the continuity of our society.

[1] Willis, Michael. "Sustainability: The Issue of Our Age and a Concern for Local Government," Public Management. Published by the International City/County Management Association, Washington, D.C. August 2006, pp. 8-12.

[2] Willis, p. 9.

[3] Willis, p. 10.

[4] Results of "State of the Profession Survey 2002." International City/County Management Association, Washington, D.C.

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