City Manager/Special District General Evaluation is a Best Practice in the Public Sector

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By Dr. Bill Mathis

Current economic challenges, combined with shifted market forces in local government, have created a new climate in public sector management. Managers are being asked to do more with less every day. Without effective feedback, it can be difficult for Managers to know where to focus their energies to keep their cities prosperous.

One of the best tools cities can use to thrive, even during tough times, is the City Manager/ General Manager evaluation. When used effectively evaluations work as a two-way street of communication to ensure that everyone agrees on what goals and objectives need priority attention with operations, and provide an opportunity for members to be heard.

Changing Market Forces

The turnover rate of City Managers in California has climbed from 18% to over 30%; slightly less for General Managers. In part this is due to the influx of a younger generation looking to change careers more often than their predecessors. In a more subtle way, however, this increase in turnover relates directly to what is being asked of our Managers today.

Instead of coming on board to help manage services in growing communities, today’s Managers are being asked to downsize. Trimming budgets, cutting services and generally economizing, are not always the challenges that Managers are trained for.

Even the Managers who enjoy the endeavor of downsizing are finding themselves running into a glass ceiling. Some want new responsibilities or see potential for greater earnings in the private sector.  Others face an environment lacking enough feedback or in which they get conflicting reviews of their performance.

The Need For Feedback

Providing constructive feedback for Managers on an annual basis helps prevent most minor issues from becoming major problems.  The best method is to maintain yearly evaluations, executed with the guidance of a professional and outside facilitator.

The Review Process

A facilitator, once agreed upon by all parties, first sits down with the City Manager to outline what the review will encompass. With these parameters in mind, the facilitator then talks with each council member privately to collect their unvarnished opinions about the City Manager’s work.

Once the facilitator has met with everyone individually a meeting is held with the council as a whole. During this meeting, the Manager is invited in to hear the council’s or board’s consolidated thoughts, presented by the facilitator in a constructive manner. The process is generally guided by a report by the facilitator, consisting of all evaluator’s comments.

A Chance to Promote What’s Working

Both the Manager and council members can expect to spend between four hours on the entire evaluation process, every year. For every hour spent, however, immeasurable time will be saved by keeping everyone working effectively toward agreed upon goals in the months ahead.

Particularly during tough economic times, this invaluable time provides an opportunity for recognition of the Manager’s successes. Evaluations are a chance to refresh goals and make new goals for the coming year; also ensuring all parties are working toward the same objectives and the council’s highest priorities. Evaluations also provide an opportunity for Managers to give feedback to their councils. This process also lays out what all department heads will focus on.

For all these reasons evaluations must be held up as a vital part of public sector management. Evaluations are not just helpful, they are essential for our Managers.

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