Saturday, April 18, 2009

River City's Problem: Council-Manager Governance

April 18, 2009, 1:00 p.m.

The Necessity of Governance Theory and Practice
(brought to you by*)

[And see the follow up to this blog entry at Nicholas Johnson, "Lombardo Firing Mystery," April 21, 2009.]

The Iowa City City Council has peremptorily fired its city manager -- the one it said last April, after its nine-month search, was "an absolute great fit for Iowa City . . . [who] had all the qualities we were looking for." Gregg Hennigan, "Council Fires I.C. manager; Mayor: It's a Personnel Matter," The Gazette, April 18, 2009, p. A1 (quoting Council Member Mike O'Donnell). I hadn't noticed that he'd gained any weight over the last 11 months, but apparently he no longer "fits." Lee Hermiston and Brian Morelli, "City Council Fires Lombardo; Ex-City Manager Says Fit Wasn't Right," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 18, 2009, p. A1.

The Press-Citizen's Editorial Board, which tracks the City Council's personalities and actions much closer than I do, editorializes this morning, "in recent weeks, we've seen Lombardo and the Iowa City Council publicly debate who is responsible for setting priorities, who is responsible for implementing those priorities and where does the buck actually stop." Editorial, "City Left With No Manager at a Very Bad Time," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 18, 2009, p. A12.

That language is a description of a "governance" problem.

A letter writer (who must have written before the firing) even uses the word. "What I expect from local government is a prioritization of needs . . .. Please, then, keep funding the library -- perhaps even go check out some books on governance." Steve Radosevich, "Council's Skills Leave a Lot to be Desired," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 18, 2009, p. A12.

This is something with which I've offered to help the City Council in the past -- for free, of course. No interest was expressed.

Two years ago I sensed a similar problem with the Iowa Board of Regents, and offered them the blog entry, Nicholas Johnson, "An Open Letter to Regents on 'Governance,'" April 17, 2007 -- much of which would be directly applicable to the City Council-City Manager relationship.

Earlier, as a member of the Iowa City Community School District Board I worked with my fellow board members in actually implementing the approach of one of our nation's leading governance gurus, John Carver. The history of that effort is available on the Web page, Nicholas Johnson, "Board Governance Theory and Practice," April 28, 2000. That site also contains a link to a summary article of his that lays out the basic principles for those who would prefer not to read through his books.

You may have seen this poster about "Meetings," with the caption: "None of us is as dumb as all of us." [Credit: Despair, Inc.]

As John Carver says, "boards are incompetent groups of competent individuals." Or you may have heard the definition of a camel, as "a horse built by a committee."

Carver has successfully applied his principles to everything from the nation's largest Fortune 500 corporate boards to some of its smallest non-profits and school boards. His approach works with any institution governed by a group rather than a single administrator.

Carver contends that most boards -- or in this case city councils -- find themselves somewhere along a continuum from "rubber stamping" at one end to "micro-managing" on the other end (when they shouldn't be anywhere on that continuum), and that most instruction for boards only teaches them how to do the wrong things better.

Most of us enter into our roles as members of corporate or non-profit boards, multi-member public bodies (such as school boards or regulatory commissions) with some notion of substance (such as "education" in the case of a school board or the Board of Regents, or a city government's functions in the case of a city council) but little to no thought about governance process.

It's something the group has to perceive as an individual and group benefit, something each member wants to do. Otherwise it won't work. Carver has walked away from what would otherwise have been very lucrative work sessions once it became obvious that there was not that kind of commitment on the part of every member of the group. (Speaking of which, there's no need to hire Carver; the school board went through the process all on its own, relying on the books.)

Thinking through what that process should be, understanding and implementing a "governance" model (there are others besides Carver's), are among the most difficult jobs a city council member will ever undertake -- and given their responsibilities that's saying a lot. It takes individual study, research, hours of analytical thought and hopefully writing, the kind that causes little drops of blood to form on your forehead and drop onto the keyboard, before you are even ready to begin the group's discussion, agreement, and drafting that can produce your own specific application of basic governance principles. Although the process can be facilitated by an outsider, the end product is not something that can be delegated to a consultant or to staff. It has to be done by each individual council member.

No wonder most city councils and boards of all kinds aren't enthusiastic about undertaking such a task.

But there's a word for those who do. They are called "successful."

And their city managers tend to stay on the job for more than 11 months.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Patti said...

Nick, you have been critical of the school board's work recently, so you should know that we have been struggling.

I can tell you that one of our barriers has been Carver/policy governance...I am no longer a big fan of it. And, I wouldn't recommend it to other types of government.

Nick said...

Patti (and any others interested):

I put a comment on the DM Register story about the Lombardo dismissal,, making reference to this blog entry.

It produced the following from a "Bob333" who agrees with you about Carver:

"I checked out NickIowa's blog. He advocates a John Carver style of corporate governance. This is terrible advice and has been a tsunami like disaster for the Iowa City Community School district. Under NickIowa's favored model of governance, a board is only responsible for policy and is supposed to hold the top person responsible for everything else. Elected boards, however, don't hold the top person responsible, and stakeholder problems are ignored. What Iowa City Community School Board does like to do is build new buildings. The board should focus on the problems within."

To this I replied:

"Brief reply to Bob333. Boards (and city councils) must think about, utilize, SOME theory of governance -- define the job of board members, the CEO/manager, and their relationship.

The only all-too-common truly disastrous alternative is no standards.

In strange towns some city maps are better than others. But any map is better than none.

Carver's is not the only governance model. It worked for us, years ago, when I was on the board. Choose another model if you prefer. Many have. Just don't fly blind.

Whether the current school board has correctly designed, implemented, continuously reviewed and stuck with its governance model is another matter. That's hard work. I'm no longer there and cant's speak to that issue.

But if a board has failed at governance it's because the board members have failed, not because correctly implemented governance models are a bad idea."

I think that response of mine is equally applicable to your comment (that you are no longer a fan of Carver).

I do not, and need not, make a case for Carver. As I mentioned to Bob333, there are alternatives. The only alternative I find unacceptable is no governance model, policy or rules. That's true chaos -- and appears to be a part of the City Council's problem.

Whether it's a part of the ICCSD School Board's problem I cannot know; I haven't been tracking your work that closely. To the extent I've been "critical" is has been focused on specific substantive policies (Roosevelt demolition and approach to boundaries) not governance policies.

As you know, I've been there, done that. I know what hard work it is -- not just to create a governance model once, like a smallpox shot, but how much harder it is to give it the continuous, unending focus any governance theory/model requires.

In any event, I'm indebted to you and the other six for undertaking to do your best with it.

-- Nick

John Barleykorn said...

You dont need to have a specific model, you just need clearly defined roles and expectations.

The assumption here is that this was a working problem. I am not so sure. First off he didn't resign, he was fired. BY a 7-0 vote no less. I think its very possible something else went on here. I am not going to speculate on what, but given the swift reaction, I would say it was fairly serious. The council cant say anything really, and this is typical of any employer. That leads to a lot of criticism of them. But maybe it should be more on the process which led them to this point and to the criteria of what they were looking for.

Nick said...

Notice Regarding Advertising: This blog runs an open comments section. All comments related to blog entries have (so far) remained posted, regardless of how critical. Although I would prefer that those posting comments identify themselves, anonymous comments are also accepted.

The only limitation is that advertising posing as comments will be removed. That is why one or more of the comments posted on this blog entry, containing links to businesses, have been deleted.
-- Nick