There is no single form of municipal government in use throughout the U.S. Rather, its towns and cities adopt their own form of local government, such as the council-manager or mayor-council form of municipal government. Some forms of local government rely on a city manager to carry out administrative duties.
What does a city manager do and how can you become one? A city manager works in collaboration with elected officials and other city workers to make sure that the day-to-day responsibilities of the various departments are executed properly. Explore this career guide to learn about a typical city manager job description and the process of pursuing a career as a city manager.
What Is a City Manager?
Before exploring exactly what a city manager does, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the most common types of municipal government and how the city manager role fits into these types. One of the most common structures of local government is the council-manager government. In this system, the residents elect members of a city council, which acts as the primary legislative body of the city.
The city council members appoint a city manager (not an elected official) who acts like a chief executive officer and carries out the directives of the council. In some towns, the city council may also have an elected mayor. However, in the council-manager form of government, the mayor has few or no powers above and beyond those of the other council members.
Another common form of local government, the mayor-council government, is similar to the council-manager type in that there is an elected council and an elected mayor. However, in the mayor-council government, the mayor typically has more powers compared to mayors in the council-manager government. A mayor-council government will also appoint a city manager.
A third form of local government is the commission government, which is less commonly used in the U.S. Voters elect each commissioner to serve on a governing board. Each commissioner has both legislative and executive powers. In other words, a commissioner can act as both a city council member and a city manager. It’s not typical for a commission government to hire a city manager, although there are exceptions.
In short, many cities, but not all, hire city managers to carry out the directives of elected officials. Although the city manager is not an elected official, they still serve the public. The city manager also serves at the pleasure of the council, which retains the right to dismiss the city manager and hire a replacement.
A Look at a Typical City Manager Job Description
If a city can be compared to a company, then a city manager is like a chief executive officer. The city manager is charged with overseeing the daily affairs of the municipality. These professionals have a broad range of responsibilities, including the following:
- Developing and maintaining the city’s budget
- Advising the councilmembers regarding various issues and council decisions (the city manager has no vote on the council, however)
- Implementing the legislation enacted by the council
- Appointing department heads and managing senior city employees
- Ensuring that city utilities and services are running smoothly and are accessible by the public
- Coordinating city development projects
- Liaising with city employees and members of the public, and meeting with representatives of unions, charities and other organizations in the city
The specific powers and tasks of a city manager can vary from one municipality to the next. In some cities, a city manager may have more authority than a city manager elsewhere.
The city manager also serves as the public face of the local government. They may routinely meet with members of the media to answer questions. If a crisis occurs, such as a natural disaster, the city manager may hold a press conference and will work to help the town navigate the problem.
How To Become a City Manager
There is no universal pathway to becoming a city manager, as people come to this role from a diverse range of academic backgrounds and professional experiences. If you are still in high school, you can benefit from taking classes that emphasize communication skills and critical thinking. The humanities, economics, accounting, law and governance courses are all good options.
In addition, it can help to explore opportunities outside of the classroom. Joining the debate club is a good idea, as is pursuing internship positions in public organizations, including nonprofit groups.
After high school, you should plan on earning at least a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as government and public policy. It’s customary for city managers to hold a master’s degree as well, particularly a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree.
Since the job of a city manager isn’t an entry-level one, you should plan on gaining work experience within a city department or other public organization after graduation. Serving as an assistant to the city manager is also a smart move. In addition, you can acquire certification to increase your chances of successfully being appointed to your desired position by a city council.
Earn an Undergraduate Public Policy Degree
After high school, the first step in the process of becoming a city manager is to earn an undergraduate degree. There is no universal degree requirement for aspiring city managers, as they can come from a diverse range of academic backgrounds.
For instance, some city managers are promoted after having worked for the city in another capacity. A finance director who has a degree in accounting or a police chief with a degree in criminal justice might transition to the role of city manager. In general, however, if you already know that you want to pursue a position as city manager, you should choose a degree that is more relevant to public administration.
A Bachelor of Arts in Government with an Emphasis in State and Local Public Policy is one example of a public policy degree that would serve future city managers well. This type of degree explores the theoretical frameworks and practical applications of state and local governments and their agencies. The topics that are typically included in the curriculum for this type of degree are as follows:
- The theory and practice of governmental administration, including the implementation of laws
- Methods of analyzing the potential impacts of proposed public policy on constituents, media, interest groups, public opinion and governing institutions
- Comparative government and international politics, with a look at the political and diplomatic processes of Western and non-Western governments
- The history and development of municipal governments in the U.S., various municipal government organization types and common issues for city administrators, including taxation, law enforcement, housing, health and zoning
You will graduate with a firm understanding of the inner workings of state and local governments, and how they affect populations. Equally as important, a public policy degree can teach you how to think critically, apply analytical reasoning skills, make ethical decisions and communicate effectively with people from a range of backgrounds. These are all crucial skills for an aspiring city manager.
Pursuing Entry-Level Work in Preparation for a City Management Career
The job of a city manager is not an entry-level one, even for individuals who hold a graduate public policy degree. It will be necessary for you to acquire at least several years of experience working in other, related capacities. For example, you might pursue a position as a campaign staffer for an elected official, such as a communications director.
After gaining some entry-level experience, you may wish to pursue a position within a specific city department, such as the public works department. Other possibilities include serving as an assistant city manager or director of community development. After establishing yourself as a competent and ethical leader within the local government, you can pursue the position of city manager.
Essential Skills and Characteristics of Effective City Managers
To be an effective city manager, a range of characteristics and competencies are necessary. For example, interpersonal skills are crucial, as city managers must be able to work well with many different people of diverse backgrounds and opinions. Diplomacy is also a must-have competency, since city managers may sometimes need to deal with controversial or otherwise challenging problems.
Other important skills and characteristics are as follows:
- Strong project management skills
- The ability to delegate tasks to competent individuals
- Solid communication skills
- Fiscal prudence and budgeting abilities
- Servant leadership
When you’re ready to bolster your career qualifications and prepare to pursue a rewarding career in government, Grand Canyon University is here for you. In addition to our many baccalaureate degrees in government and public administration, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Master of Public Administration with an Emphasis in Government and Policy degree program. Graduates will emerge with a deeper understanding of public policy and administration, and as more confident, capable leaders.
Click on Request Info to learn more about earning your MPA, available via convenient online classes.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.