Accountability in Local Government: Steward Leadership of Public Input

Posted by Matthew Thomas

Organizational accountability is often a challenge in local government, since there are almost always people with very different perspectives elected by different constituencies thrown together to try to govern a  common municipality, school system, or other local entity. Accountability, on the one hand, is to those who voted in that district to elect the people now governing. On the other hand, there is often a separation of powers that requires those governing to be accountable to one another. Moreover, beyond those two structural accountabilities, there is a certain amount of transparency and collaboration that must take place for those two accountabilities to provide enough of a structure to create civic health.

matthew-thomas-2In many municipalities, the separation of powers elects an executive mayor independently of a city council. The mayor is tasked with running the city, but the council is tasked with making appropriations and laws. The accountability between the two is primarily budgetary, with the council controlling the purse strings. In turn, the municipality must follow the state statutes within which their powers exist.

Clear accountability begins with a clear understanding by both the municipal government and the citizens as to who the owners are. In most democratic nations, the owners are the residents of the municipality. The government then becomes steward of the municipality’s “common good” assets. Where it becomes confusing for the average municipal resident, public employee and elected officer, is that the residents are both the owners and the recipients of the municipality’s services – and are, in other words, owner, customer and beneficiary all at the same time. This means, as John Carver says in On Board Leadership (Josey Bass, 2002, 91), “Each of us operates much more as a customer of government than a joint owner, even though it is the latter role that offers long-term improvement.”

An accountable municipal government, then, seeking to be good steward leaders of the public assets they manage, will intentionally seek out owner-type information from its citizens, so that they can, as Carver says, “[governments] continually weigh exactly what municipal outcomes for citizens are worth how much taxation.” (ibid., 93.)

Thinking in these terms requires municipalities to start thinking about their goals and priorities from the perspective of revenue, not expense. Otherwise, it becomes all about hiring or layoffs and maintenance and building projects and road resurfacing and the list just goes on and on. Looking at the goals, priorities, and needs of the community from the perspective of revenue allows the municipality to balance the costs to prioritize expenditures from the owners’ perspective. Steward leadership requires starting from what the municipality has, not what it doesn't yet have.

This also requires discovering techniques for soliciting public input that will generate owner-type input rather than just customer service complaints or customer satisfaction surveys. Elected officials, though they run on specific campaign promises, should never assume that they really know what their constituency is thinking without periodically seeking this input.

Governments can begin this process by moving all customer service and customer satisfaction type work to the municipal departments responsible for carrying out services. It can establish clear chains of command and responsibility for dealing with needs and complaints in those areas. Then, it can form survey and other feedback instruments structured around goals, priorities and good stewardship of assets, and deploy them in ways even the most disinterested resident will interact with. This will help to make the municipality’s governance more strategic, while dealing actively with residents’ customer-type needs.

Healthy accountability in local government is not an easy process to maintain, as most municipal habits tend toward reactivity to complaints and the micromanagement that is derived from generations of attempts at transparency and accountability by committee. Nevertheless, local governments can benefit from good organizational design and process just like any other organization. Finding creative ways to seek local owner-type input is one of the first steps along the way.

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Topics: Organizational Governance, steward leadership, municipal government