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The Wisconsin City County Managers Association (WCMA) held its winter conference last week in Eau Claire.  Robert O'Neill, Executive Director of the International City Managers Association (ICMA) spoke on current trends impacting local government and how local governments can manage in the face of these trends.

Key points from Bob's presentation:

  1. The federal government will essentially have no domestic agenda for the next decade.  Entitlements, defense, and debt will claim nearly all federal revenue for the next ten years.  With no ability to raise additional revenue, the federal government will continue to cut domestic spending.
  2. Communities and regions will be on their own.  If we want anything to happen at the local or regional level, it has to be the result of local initiative and local revenue generation.  The good news is that the public will support spending for projects.  Between 2010 and 2011, 70% of all local ballot initiatives in the U.S. passed by a substantial margin - 60% - 65%.
  3. Local ballot initiatives will pass if three critical conditions are met:
    • There is a clear articulation of the consequences/benefits of the initiative;
    • There is a concerted effort at citizen engagement and dialog prior to the initiative going to a vote; and
    • The agency implementing the initiative is trusted by the public to be effective.
  4. The conditions for local government success over the next decade will be:
    • an effective and efficient local government;
    • establishing a neutral place for regional conversation and a platform for regional cooperation;
    • an engaged and enlightened business community;
    • a refocused and right-sized non-profit community;
    • a 21st century community engagement strategy that is both high-tech and high touch.
  5. There are six characteristics of successful government organizations in this environment:
    • Establishment of early-warning systems to discern trends and factors that will have impacts on strategy and timing;
    • React quickly to those trends and factors;
    • Have migration strategies in place early to weather the storms of changing environments (scenario planning);
    • Understand community values and make choices based upon priorities;
    • Applying the rigor required to determine whether programs are working - requires systems and standards to measure performance - use case studies and best practice;
    • Never being satisfied with the current level of performance - establish a culture of continuous improvement.
  6. Keys to local government transformation:
    • Create alternative migration/transition paths;
    • Understand their risk profiles;
    • Know what success looks like;
    • Determine the upside for stakeholders and constantly talk about it;
    • Adapt quickly.


  • Local governments and regions will be on their own;
  • Cross-sector strategies will be the norm;
  • Performance matters;
  • Maintain identity, but match issues to appropriate geography - political identity vs economies of scale in service delivery;
  • Leadership matters

You may view recent articles written by Bob O'Neill for Governing Magazine by visiting

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