Democracy Beyond the Ballot Box: A New Role for Elected Officials, City Managers, and Citizens
Valerie Lemmie has many years of experience in public administration, having served as city manager for Cincinnati and Dayton, OH, and Petersburg, VA. In this monograph, Lemmie shares how she came to believe in the importance of engaging citizens in the governance process.
Lemmie writes that she entered public service because she “believed in the power of government to solve society’s problems by redistributing resources and stepping in to correct injustices. I came to see firsthand the immense structural and practical obstacles public administrators face when they attempt to tackle the ‘wicked problems’ of communities. . . . I have gradually come to understand that an essential component is missing from the equation—the engagement of citizens.”
There are reasons for the disconnect between citizens and their government, says Lemmie, and one of them was the advent of the “professional” or “expert” in local government, in the form of the city manager. The council-manager form of local government was the result of a convergence of forces during the Progressive Era, including the rapid urbanization of America’s cities, discontent with the corrupt practices of political machines, and the emergence of scientific management principles with the prospect of more efficiently run and accountable public organizations. An effect of this model has been the elevation of the value of technical expertise over citizens’ expertise, further distancing citizens from their local government.
In the cities Lemmie managed, city council members looked to her to ameliorate popular discontent and to create a higher performing city organization. Their logic was simple: If they did a better job, citizens would feel better about them. But that was not usually the case. She gradually came to see that the key to fixing wicked community problems was role redefinition: elected officials were going to have to learn how to share power with citizens and citizens had to move from spectators to participants. “City managers,” Lemmie writes, “need to help create the environment where citizen input into the decision-making process is valued; educate the community, elected officials, and staff on ways to make it happen; and then, lead the change.”