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Why We Need Diversity in City Management

Kubkoo

Wade McKinney is city manager of Indian Wells and president of the California City Management Foundation; he can be reached at wmckinney@indianwells.com.


Cities are home to people from all walks of life. But how often does a city’s workforce — especially at management levels — closely reflect the diversity of the community it serves? Local governments face a growing challenge of providing public service to increasingly diverse communities. Promoting diversity at City Hall is a key strategy for ensuring equitable service.

Why Bosses Appreciate Diversity

I challenge my fellow city managers to take a page out of Apple, Inc.’s playbook when it comes to diversity. At www.apple.com/diversity, the company outlines why it is mindful about forming teams and hiring leaders from varied backgrounds. Its tagline opens with “Humanity is plural, not singular.” That concept rings as true for local government as it does in the world of technology.

As Apple and other companies have demonstrated, having a truly diverse staff can lead to intensely creative problem-solving and foster a flexible, collaborative and inclusive work environment.

In my work as a city manager, I have come to cherish the ways that my staff members set themselves apart from one another. The most valuable differences reveal the way each person thinks and how they act upon their ideas. City managers who are able to harness these unique perspectives can leverage the full potential of their staff members to creatively tackle new challenges.

Why Staff Members Appreciate Diversity

Managers are not the only ones to benefit from a diverse workforce. Endeavoring to understand differing viewpoints and talents also enhances city staff’s ability to work as a cohesive team.

Shared experiences and challenges faced by colleagues can increase empathy and inform future local government decisions. Moving forward, the team members can work together to address multiple aspects of a single issue to mitigate potential future municipal or community problems.

Women in the Profession

If our goal is to create a municipal workforce that reflects all segments of its community, the topic of gender must be part of the conversation. As of April 2016, among the 6,617 International City/County Management Association (ICMA) members working for U.S. local government full time, 28.5 percent (1,886) are women. Roughly 3,400 of the 6,617 are chief administrative officers (CAOs), of which 15 percent are women. Among the 1,100 ICMA members who serve at the assistant or deputy CAO level, 37.2 percent (409) are women.

Cities — and all organizations — are stronger when they draw upon the talents and perspectives of the entire community, not just the male portion. A mix of genders in the workplace can tap into previously unexplored insights about the general population and keep our public services relevant.

City managers play a key role in creating change within the workplace. I encourage my colleagues to examine their own cities, acknowledge the various obstacles that may impede upward mobility for women and collaborate with staff to improve the work environment.

The Next Generation

A successful city organization continually learns and evolves. The public sector is seeing — and will continue to see — a “silver tsunami” of retirees. To ensure that their city continues to thrive well into the future, city managers should implement a culture that exposes new and emerging talented employees to the upper management path.

Mentorship should also be a part of this culture. As Patricia Martel, city manager of Daly City, has said, “One of the most critical things is to have a role model. You can’t be who you can’t see.” As city managers, we need to keep our younger employees engaged in the vision of our organizations and discover what will keep the next generation motivated to pursue a long career in public service.

I am fortunate to have had several mentors over the years who taught me many valuable lessons ranging from basic municipal information to profound insights about the local government profession. Mentors can see where we need to improve, and they encourage us to expand our knowledge. Furthermore, having a mentor can speed up the learning process, helping early-career employees better tackle challenges that their mentor has encountered in the past.

Community Appreciates Staff Who Are Like Them

Diversity at management levels creates more opportunities for a city to better connect with its community. A mix of cultures in the workplace can help city leaders to contextualize issues that may be unique to their municipality. With that foundation, the city can better engage with its multiracial and multicultural populations.

Public policy affects residents, first and foremost. As city administrators, we have a duty to ensure our community members feel they are being heard, especially when the city is considering decisions that affect their lives. If residents feel they are understood and see that they are truly being represented, they are typically more likely to participate in the civic life of their community and engage in local government activities.

Next Steps

The idea of cultivating diversity is not new. Many cities and public agencies have implemented measures to better reflect California’s increasing diversity. An analysis of the work done to promote diversity in communities of all sizes can help local leaders create an action plan that is responsive to their city’s unique needs and demographics.

Embracing a new organizational culture does not happen overnight. City managers should lead their teams and staff members in ongoing discussions about why their personal experiences matter and how they can help create lasting change that benefits the entire community they all serve.


Related Resources

Cultivating an Inclusive and Diverse Future Workforce

How Diversity Makes the League Stronger

Cultivating Diversity in Municipal Management

Finding Strength in Shared Values and Diversity

League Diversity Caucuses Unite Members in Networks, Education and Advocacy

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