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The City Manager Experience in the U.S.: Perspectives on Improving Local Government in LAC


  • Travis Katz
  • Tim Campbell


The City (or Council) Manager--a career professional who handles budget, personnel, and implementation, leaving political matters to elected officials--has been adopted in more than a score of cities in LAC. City managers are found in more than 2,000 U.S. cities, making it the most widely used form of management in the country. This paper reviews the origins of the Council-Manager form of government, noting that the circumstances spawning its creation in the late 19th Century were analogous, if not similar, to circumstances of cities in LAC today: rapid growth, weak institutional capacity, and widespread calls for public sector reform. In fact, four distinct types of government evolved in the U.S. during the rapid urbanization of 1860-1935, each with relative strengths and weaknesses. The purpose of this note is not to compare the patterns of growth nor management solutions in the U.S. and LAC. Rather, the goal is to present comparable experiences as a vehicle to discuss issues and tradeoffs of different forms of municipal management. Democratic government has been evaluated with three criteria: i) representation, ii) technical, non-partisan competence; and iii) coordinated leadership. However, because these values are not always complementary, most forms of government represent a tradeoff between one or more competing goals. The major types were: The town meeting developed in New England in colonial times All government decisions are made collectively by citizens. The weak mayor-council system, which prevailed in the U.S. through the turn of the century, emphasized participation in democratic electio of even low level officials, limited mayoral power, and weakened project coordination. Some cities adjusted to this problem by increasing the power of the executive, creating the strong mayor-council system, requiring the mayor to be both politician and administrator. Some cities have worked around this problem by employing a Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). In cities where no change was made, political machines (essentially for-profit political parties) arose during the 1860’s and 70’s, offering greater leadership and coordination at the expense of fiscal accountability and efficiency. Soon after, the progressive reform movement and ideas of “good government” drawing on private sector offered citizens new alternatives emphasizing the need for business- like efficiency in government. The commission form (1906), for example, concentrated all administrative and political power into a single body of elected commissioners, somewhat analogous to the cabildo in Mexico. While providing a clear delineation of responsibilities, the commission lacked central leadership and coordination. Council-Manager form (1911), on the other hand, separates political and administrative functions through the employment of a professional city manager, hired by and accountable to the city council. Proponents trumpet efficiency, critics want more participation. Little concrete data is available to evaluate rigorously the Council-Manager experience, even though it is widely used in the U.S. Its growing appeal for cities in LAC makes it important to examine the conditions of suitability, for instance across cities with different population sizes and compositions, as well as its effect on spending patterns (particularly in areas of social welfare and poverty) and on participation. Further work in this area is forthcoming in the LATAD study on Decentralization in LAC-- Best Practice and Policy Lessons (Fuhr and Campbell, 1994).

Suggested Citation

  • Travis Katz & Tim Campbell, 1995. "The City Manager Experience in the U.S.: Perspectives on Improving Local Government in LAC," Reports _003, World Bank Latin America and the Caribean Region Department.
  • Handle: RePEc:wop:bawlad:_003

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