Government’s Plumbers

May 2017
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

When I served as the auditor of Kansas City, Mo., I saw my role as that of a craftsman, like a carpenter or a plumber. I thought about this as I read Liz Farmer’s feature about a certain breed of city manager she describes as living in a constant quest for new challenges in new places. These “mobile managers” are like plumbers, brought in to fix leaky pipes. When things are working properly again, they move on to the next place.

The people who hire these city managers are the elected officials who represent the voters. Just as with homeowners and plumbers, responsible people hire skilled professionals. But more important in this case, good elected officials give city managers the space they need to do their work. A recent interview in Forbes with Mick Cornett, the fourth-term mayor of Oklahoma City, provides an example of what I mean.

Oklahoma City is successful by almost every measure: The unemployment rate is well below the national average; it is one of the nation’s 10 fastest-growing cities; it has minimal taxes and public debt; and, in what Cornett’s interviewer (and Governing columnist) Scott Beyer calls “a true urban American anomaly,” its employee pension system is almost fully funded. Cornett is also that rare variety of big-city mayor, a Republican. But when Beyer asked him if it was conservative governance that had produced these results, Cornett responded that while the city’s policies “might be Republican by coincidence,” its success was actually the result of a sense of unity in the city and the fact that it has had really good city managers.

I think the two elements Cornett identifies are linked. The city’s leadership was able to create a sense of unity that gave its expert administrators the space to run the city well. A sense of unity is a function of leadership, and it can be difficult to achieve. A good example today is the problem of public safety. Although violent crime is at historic lows nationally, fears of crime and of terrorism seem high. Given the tenor of our debates over immigration and the use of force by police, this is a problem that divides Americans more than it unites us.

Good leaders bring people together to solve problems. They appeal to values we all hold in common and find ways to coalesce people around shared goals. When that hard work is done, skilled management can craft efficient and effective solutions to problems. The plumber can’t fix the leaks until we stop arguing over who can use the bathroom.