Contemporary Challenges in Local Government: Evolving Roles and Responsibilities, Structures, and Processes


  • John Nalbandian is a faculty member in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. E-mail:
  • Robert O'Neill, Jr., is executive director of the International City/County Management Association. E-mail:
  • J. Michael Wilkes is city manager of Olathe, Kansas. E-mail:
  • Amanda Kaufman is assistant to the city manager in Marion, Iowa, and served as an ICMA Local Government Management Fellow with the city of Olathe, Kansas. E-mail:


Editor's Note: The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2014. This article is the first of several that will appear during the next year about the council-manager plan to commemorate ICMA's 100th anniversary.

Three contemporary leadership challenges face local governments today. The first encourages department heads to more actively work the intersection between political and administrative arenas. The second promotes collaborative work, synchronizing city and county boundaries with problems that have no jurisdictional homes. The third argues that citizen engagement is no longer optional—it is imperative—and that connecting engagement initiatives to traditional political values and governing processes is an important mark of successful community building. These three leadership challenges stem from a widening gap between the arenas of politics and administration—that is, between what is politically acceptable in public policy making and what is administratively sustainable. The gap is fueled by conflicting trends experienced locally and common internationally. Failure to bridge this gap between political acceptability and administrative sustainability results in decreasing legitimacy for governing institutions and increasing challenges.