skip navigation

Parting Thoughts from Carl Neu - Local Governments: The America that Works

By Carl H. Neu, Jr.
President of Neu and Company and
Director of the Center for the Future of Local Governance™

Earlier this year, I told Byron Katsuyama, Public Policy and Management Consultant, MRSC, I plan to retire by June 30. He asked if I would write a "parting thoughts" column as an MRSC Council/Commission Advisor. Answer: Yes.

The overarching thought: I believe fervently that Local Governments are the Civic Laboratories of Democracy (the original thought was Thomas Jefferson's). No matter how you see your role as a city, county, school district, etc., elected or appointed, official; be a responsible, as contrasted to a "popular" leader. Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville (Author of Democracy in America) saw local governments as the real guardians of both our American Republic and the democratic principles essential to defending, protecting and preserving both our Constitution and, as Lincoln stated so humbly and eloquently, "that government of the people by the people for the people [which] shall not perish from the earth."

From the time of our nation's founding, Americans and the various levels of government, federal, state and local, mostly honored the thoughts stated above. In my "old age," I have come to doubt that shared commitment will exist in the future. (Color me cynical). The policies of the Federal Government, Executive and Congressional, plus their bloated bureaucracies, no longer invigorate nor sustain, let alone enhance, our nation's long respected international status, economy, job creation, educational excellence, and the prospect that each successive generation of Americans will experience and share an expanding "American Dream."

But there is hope. We are seeing the visible demonstration, as stated in the March 16, 2013 issue of The Economist, of "The America that Works." This America results from "grass roots" business and civic leaders, entrepreneurs, reform-minded educators and innovative state and local government leaders who say "we are the 'can do' leaders and innovators" who are putting in place the investments and actions that sustain the freedom, prosperity, courage and competitiveness which "is the essence of 'The America that Works.'" It is ironic that a British publication, rather than our own national media, has to point out the power behind America's eminence and greatness that has been evident throughout our nation's founding and history is "driven from the bottom up."

Putting my faith in local government elected and appointed officials, I feel the 3 most important articles/columns of the many I have written over the years are:

As I look at these and other columns listed in the MRSC Council/Commission Advisor Archives, 5 absolutely critical tenets about the leadership essential to local government's role and success emerge:

The role of leadership and governance is to determine WHAT must be achieved for whom within available resources. The focus is upon defining ENDS to be achieved. The role of management is producing the executive actions and MEANS to achieve the ENDS defined by the governing body. The focus here is on HOW the results will be achieved.

This is illustrated below.

  1. Local governments and governance really matter.
    The nation's founders, especially Franklin and Jefferson, saw local governments (communities and institutions) and governance (the exercise of sovereignty and authority over those institutions affecting one's life, liberty, prosperity, and pursuit of happiness) as the "bedrock" foundations of America. They also counted on the ability of "we the people" to demonstrate that government at the local level governs best.

  2. As elected officials, we have a great impact on the governance and future of our communities.
    Robert Kennedy allegedly said, "The future isn't a gift, it is to be achieved."As elected officials, we are confronted with the question, "Was I elected to do what people want or to govern well?" The answer to both parts of this compound sentence is "Yes." But normally, "what people want" focuses on short-term special interests, desires, frustrations and agendas that frequently are transitory and narrowly defined especially when compared to the best long-term needs and interests of a community. One part of our role is to represent. It is important to listen and deal with and respond to citizen and community concerns in a reasoned and timely manner.

    But, the second part of the question is to "govern well." This is the quintessence of governance. This is where leadership, stewardship and guardianship over the community's future become paramount. This is where we define, draft and achieve the "gift of the future."

    Goethe, an 18th century philosopher, wisely proclaimed that "Whatever you can do, or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

    Governance is about leadership and the ability of leaders to focus on the future and from a strategic perspective. Leadership is making things happen that may not happen otherwise and preventing things, injurious to a productive future, from otherwise happening, if we fail to act. Stewardship is ensuring the capacity and means necessary to preserve and sustain the future well-being of that which we created.

    Unfortunately, the routine pressures and highly-structured meeting agendas tend to direct our attention to what people want, leaving little time and energy to focus on governance and creating a solid strategic base or policy framework for long-term rationale and responsible decision making. Please see the column MRSC Insight blog, "More Sage Advice for Councils and Commissions," posted on April 22, 2013 by Byron Katsuyama.

    In the absence of a strategic perspective to guide leadership and governance, councils and commissions can drift into becoming political entities reacting and responding to any pressure and concern of the moment. Reactive governing bodies lack the discipline of proactive leadership essential to success in their role. Proactive leaders do not leave the future to whim or fate.

  3. Our primary responsibilities as local government officials are to keep local governance momentum alive and to realize the fullest potential of our "bedrock" communities through the leadership and stewardship we provide and encourage in others.
    Leadership focuses on people - the fundamental element of successful communities and our democratic republic. Leadership is the dynamic process of awakening and expanding the best in people and inspiring their capacity to define and achieve positive and responsible outcomes for themselves and future generations. In the political arena today, too many in office equate leadership to "we make things happen for you" - a diminution of our role to be a motivator and catalyst for "The America that Works."

    Our local governments and communities are the fountainheads of that which is "best" in American and our desire to achieve "The America that Works." Alexis de Tocqueville recognized, celebrated and proclaimed this fact that the American people, at the local and home town level, demonstrated the human imagination and ingenuity that lead to the creation of America and the "American Experiment" in which people are empowered and best positioned to govern themselves. Our role is to keep the momentum and capacity above.

    This is what "to govern well" is all about. It is our duty to answer this call with a sense of purpose, honor and skill.

  4. How we think and act as leaders reflects both our character and ability to fulfill the responsibility given to us by our communities and constituents.
    In the column The 10 Habits of Highly-Effective Governing Bodies, a key point is the ability to differentiate between short-term desires and long-term priorities that must be addressed through responsible and well-reasoned leadership decisions and policies that focus on "what truly is most important" and essential to the entire community and its future.

    To be truly effective leaders, we must create a framework of strategic perspectives, policies and goals that enable us to make consistent and reasoned tactical decisions frequently demanded of us as we address and dispose of items on our regular meeting agendas. This concept is illustrated in the Governance Iceberg below. This strategic base helps us define "what truly is important and where we must spend our resources, both time and money". Note, the "top of the iceberg" is where we usually focus our attention at regular public meetings. However, the parts of the iceberg below the "water line" represent where our strategic thinking and leadership occurs. The elements in the strategic base are forged in visioning and goal setting retreats and really productive study sessions. The strategic base is essential to, in my opinion, 90% of a council's/commission's ability to lead and govern well.

    Governance Iceberg Image

  5. The Council/Commission-Staff Partnership is key to achieving extraordinary leadership performance and management successes.


Stategoc Direction Image

A mayor for whom I have great respect defines the job of leadership as shown below.


  • To understand and explain the times in which we serve.
  • To set forth a vision of where we need to go.
  • To set forth a strategy of how to get there.
  • Then, execute the strategy.
  • Demonstrate integrity in all you do and say!

Note the fourth point is "execute the strategy" through superb management skills, budgeting and programs and service-delivery performance.

Policy-making (leadership) and policy implementation (management) are not distinct and separate functions. They are an interdependent continuum of thought and relationships that transform leadership direction (vision, policies, and goals) into achieved outcomes (results, programs, projects and service-delivery). The council/commission and management staffs share this continuum and are essential partners in ensuring their mutual success. This partnership functions best when it is vision and goal-based. Councils/commissions and management staff benefit from this sense of partnership. Those who do not recognize this frequently fall prey to micro-managing and reactive, rather than proactive, decision making.

Honor and respect the integrity, professionalism and talent of the management staff. They are key to translating our leadership direction into "concrete" results.

Robert O'Neill, executive director of the International City/County Management Association noted in his May 1, 2013 column in Governing Magazine entitled "Local Government in an Era of Creative Destruction," 2 items (paraphrased below in my words).

  • The fiscal, and other challenges facing federal and state governments will force local governments to fend for themselves for at least the next 10 years.
  • Local government leadership will be tested and must demonstrate the creativity, innovation and capacity to meet the many challenges it will face while always preserving their own sense of "place" and uniqueness - as the bedrock of "The America That Works".

So now, we are thrust back to a fundamental challenge - local governments demonstrating that local government governs best and are capable of putting in place the foundations of The America That Works. Hopefully, once again the federal and state governments will benefit from the genius of local "home town grass roots" government of, by and for the people. We are the ones in the civic laboratories of democracy. It was the role of America's founders; it is our role now.

You are the "local government" champions and creative leaders in whom Jefferson put his trust and hopes. The people who bestowed upon you the office you hold put their trust and hopes in you too. Lead and govern well as you contribute to The America That Works.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Carl H. Neu

Carl H. Neu writes for MRSC as a Council Commission Advisor.

The views expressed in Advisor columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.