[Skip to Content]

September 25, 2015 – Governing, By Robert J. O’Neill

Many challenges lie ahead. Cities and counties will need to collaborate and innovate as never before.

Where is local government going? In an era of tumultuous change and declining trust in government, cities and counties face major attitudinal and demographic forces, including competition for resources devoted to the “graying” and the “browning” of America and population and generational changes in government workforces. And there’s another, perhaps overarching, challenge: the difficulty taxpayers have in thinking about government as experimental when experimental thinking will be exactly what will be needed in the coming decades.

Certainly challenges like those -- not to mention those as yet unforeseen -- are going to do much to shape the future direction of local government. They were among the forces identified by a panel of experts in a recent live-streamed discussion I moderated. Co-sponsored by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and the Alliance for Innovation (AFI), the webcast was part of a larger “Next Big Thing” project sponsored by AFI.

So what will be the next big thing? There were plenty of ideas among the panelists: Arlington County, Va., Assistant County Manager Shannon Flanagan-Watson; John Nalbandian, a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas; Austin, Texas, City Manager Marc Ott; and Rebecca Ryan, a futurist and founder of Next Generation Consulting. Here are some of their thoughts:

Collaboration: We will see a merging of the public, nonprofit and private sectors, blending public purpose with private capital to address a number of public-service-provision challenges. We also will use innovative financing and public-private partnerships to help public agencies amortize the cost of infrastructure operations and management. When Denver looked for ways to fund the last bit of its high-speed rail system, for example, the city involved investors from Spain in a nuanced and complex financing deal. Agreements such as these will require local governments to develop a new set of navigational management skills.

Technology and citizens: Much will turn on whether and how cities and counties and the people they serve use sensors, data, networking and other technological infrastructure to become “smart” jurisdictions, and how they leverage that technology to better engage their residents. In Sweden and some parts of the United States, for example, local governments have successfully combined technology and resident engagement to forge a framework for change driven far more than ever before by citizen input.

None of these efforts can succeed without the appropriate balance of high tech and high touch. Arlington County, for example, tries to equalize the two by leveraging crowdsourcing and other tools to engage residents and the business community in an ongoing conversation with their local government. And while local governments are improving opportunities to inform people and solicit opinions, there are few forums in which a resident, business leader or elected official praises someone else’s good idea. We do a great job of soliciting various viewpoints, but we need to focus on elevating the dialogue.

Closing the gaps: The gap between the haves and the have-nots -- and whether that gap becomes a structural impediment to participation in the 21st-century economy for large segments of the population -- will continue to be a major driver of local government. An unforeseen consequence of community growth and development is the broadening of the divide to the point at which “affordability” has become a major campaign issue for elected officials in cities such as Austin.

A different but equally important gap is the space between what is politically acceptable and administratively sustainable -- that space dividing what local governments wish to accomplish from what will work and what is politically possible. As that gap continues to grow, it becomes more difficult to achieve results that matter.

Resiliency: This concept, a fairly new public-sector mindset that is essential to our continued success and future partnerships, is seldom taught in public-administration classes. Resiliency is not only about the ability to bounce back from disasters, whether natural or human-caused, but to be proactive about analyzing risk before bad things happen so that we can bounce back better than before. While social cohesion is a critical factor for resilient communities, identity politics and the wavering of trust in the public sector are major impediments to achieving this important goal.

All of these have one thing in common: the continuing need for government to be innovative. Today’s rigid structures and jurisdictional branding -- which reward distinction and, consequently, competition rather than collaboration -- make it difficult to leap beyond our current boundaries to achieve successful regional and multi-sector innovation. Overcoming that difficulty may be the toughest challenge of all.

At the ICMA annual conference getting underway Sunday in Seattle, AFI will release a report based on Rebecca Ryan’s research and the “Four Forces” model developed by Cecily Sommers, which explores in more depth the question of what lies ahead for local government. To learn more, visit ICMA’s “Next Big Thing” webpage, where you can view the webcast and where the AFI report will be posted.


The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.

In the News