In this series, ELGL Co-Founder Kent Wyatt poses three questions to the guest columnist, and the guest columnist selects one to reflect on. This week, Cynthia Northrop, City Administrator for Rhome, Texas, shares three takeaways from her career experiences.
My journey to city management may be the road less traveled, yet it has afforded me the opportunity to gain a broad perspective that helps provide a deep understanding.
Of course, no matter what our individual journeys may be, we all have the opportunity to gain understanding and insights from our travels.
While mine may be an unlikely, or unique path, so I’ve been told, I am thankful for the insight and experiences I have gained along the way; jumping from the world of fashion to federal government, local elected official (city and county), state transportation agency, PR consultant firm specializing in public engagement for local and state governments, small businesswoman to Assistant to the City Manager, Assistant Executive Director of an EDC to my current position as City Administrator. The three main take-aways gained through my travels include bridging the gap between elected officials and staff, discovering the nuances and critical need for interagency collaboration and partnerships, and the benefits of networking and communication.
Bridging the Gap between Elected and Staff
While public administrators and local elected officials are both driven by public service and commitment to the local community, they are generally looking at it from two different perspectives or different sides of the coin, largely because of their respective roles within the framework of local government. Most times the elected officials live, work and/or are raising their families within the community and want to be able to engage and give back. They may be stay-at-home moms or dads, bankers, doctors, landscape architects, engineers, college professor or public-school teachers by profession while public administrators have specifically chosen local government as their profession and may or may not have longevity in the various communities in which they serve.
Public Administrators and Elected Officials both serve in very different, but complementary roles within the local community. Elected officials provide the overall vision and goals, setting policy for the organization and the public administrator and team is tasked with carrying out the Council’s policy directives as well as providing professional insight and recommendations for Council consideration as they develop the vision, goal and policies.
Within this mix the elected officials operate within the larger system of representative government; elected to represent the citizens of the community so of course they are primarily focused on the will, needs and perspective of those they represent in addition to being influenced by their respective professional background and individual perspectives for how local government operates in the community. For instance, were they motivated to run because they perceived a lack of attention to roads or parks or fiscally sound management practices? Public administrators, on the other hand, are focused on implementing Council directives while providing options or recommendations based on professional guidance and best practices within the respective functions of local government.
Having operated in both roles I understand, for instance, that when elected officials are asking questions, digging into details, it is not necessarily a challenge to staff. More times than not, it is because they don’t know the details, issues, etc. not because they are trying to find fault, which is how it can be interpreted from a staff perspective. As public administrators and/or staff, our task is to provide timely and accurate information, along with a professional recommendation and various options, recognizing that most questions aren’t a challenge, nor should it be an affront to us if Council chooses to go a different direction than staff recommends.
The Importance of Interagency Collaboration and Partnerships
Most public administrators understand the benefit of collaboration and partnering with other agencies and entities, and given time will learn the intricacies of the internal processes unique to each. We recognize the challenges of limited resources and the benefits of leveraging partnerships to extend our ability to provide services in our local communities. I think what I have learned from the inside, are the particular rules, regulations, systems and processes unique to federal levels of government and agencies, state government and agencies and county government; each of which are specific to the level of government, the respective laws that govern their rules and regulations and the subsequent impact of the communication and power structure that affects operations and relationships external to the organization. Half the battle of accomplishing tasks within local government requires knowing who to contact within an external organization and knowing when and where various decisions are made, whether that is applying for a grant or accessing transportation dollars within a region.
Networking and Communication
Inherent in both elected – staff relationships and interagency collaboration and partnerships is the idea of networking and communication. Public Administrators juggle multiple demands on their time; from their Mayor and Council, internal leadership team and employees, to external residents, groups and various professional organizations and relationships and the art of walking that line to serve by listening. From my educational background in communication studies to my experience in a variety of professions, entities and agencies, I’ve gleaned not only perspectives of those within by listening to understand but also the importance of internal coaching, mentoring and delegating that in turn empowers employees and provides the ability to gain time to invest in relationships outside the organization. The benefits accrued to the elected officials, city and the citizens can be realized in practical ways such as ideas on how to handle a crisis or contacts to gain access to funding, or to more intangible ways such as broadening perspective in how a particular agency functions or gaining loyalty from the staff you empowered to expand their role and gain needed experience.
While my journey to public administration hasn’t been typical, I am thankful for the experiences, insight and perspectives gleaned along the way and am looking forward to continuing to learn and applying some of what I’ve learned in this newest adventure as City Administrator.