The Real Role of Cities

As one thoughtful city manager see it, in our focus on service delivery we're lost sight of a fundamental purpose of government.
by | January 31, 2013

Over the last hundred years or so, we have come to see local government increasingly as a mechanism for service delivery. James Keene, the city manager of Palo Alto, Calif., sees the deeper purpose of government, especially at the local level, with a different perspective: as a way to establish and maintain agreements on how we are going to live together.

If you consider the real meaning of the word "governing," it becomes clear that Keene is exactly right. To govern is to make and enforce laws and to arbitrate conflicts. The core role of government is to provide mechanisms to mediate differences among citizens. Over the years, as more and more services have been taken on by government, we have largely lost sight of this. A city is only one of many deliverers of services, both profit-seeking and non-profit. The city's primary responsibility is not simply as a service deliverer but also as a convener, facilitator and a clarifier.

Keene's fresh and thoughtful ideas, which I first heard at Governing's California Leadership Forum last October, are informed by a long and deliberately diverse career in local government that began with an internship in the Montgomery County, Md., county administrator's office. Before coming to Palo Alto, Keene worked for Loudoun County, Va., and served as county manager in Coconino County, Ariz., and as city manager in Tucson, Ariz., and Berkeley, Calif. He also had a stint as executive director of the California State Association of Counties and was director of strategic initiatives for the International City/County Management Association.

Keene says he chose a career in local government because he thought it was the closest, most intimate form of government. But being a public official, as Keene knows only too well, is not for the faint of heart. Governing has always been difficult. That's why human history is so filled with wars, insurrections and rebellions.

It is a different kind of conflict that Keene sees as one of the primary difficulties for today's public official: between the goal of efficiency and need that people have to be connected both to the place where they live and to each other. The problems we face argue for larger-scale solutions, for regional government and regional collaboration, whereas what people long for is a distinctive sense of place that differentiates where they live from every other place.

When the city-management profession was created a hundred years ago as a reform initiative, the primary motivation was to create local governments that were more businesslike, that delivered services more efficiently and effectively. Many of the first city managers were engineers by training. Today different skills are needed. The city manager of today must work to support effective citizenship. He or she must focus not only on stewardship, service and values but also on place, community and civics.

It's not just the citizens that professional public administrators must pay attention to, of course. They work for elected officials, so they need to understand and appreciate the role of the politician. In that regard, Keene believes that the attitude of the public toward politics needs to be rehabilitated to reclaim a more honorable and mature place our civic life.

The actual work of politicians--to reconcile perspectives and reach real agreement--is, he says, both impossible and necessary, and citizens and civic leaders who are more interested in making a statement than in making a difference will doom their cities. Keene quotes Wallace Stegner, from Jean Bethke Elshtain's 1993 book "Democracy on Trial": "Civilizations grow by agreements, accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations."

That's a useful guide for the years to come. We're going to be renegotiating the role of cities and who does what. In an increasingly crowded and complex world, we have to find new ways to learn to live together. The advantaged communities are going to be those that are really effective at reaching dynamic agreement.

Mark Funkhouser  |  Director, GOVERNING Institute
mfunkhouser@governing.com

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