Managing a community: Political Science faculty Rusi Sun’s research explores the city manager v. city council struggle.

December 19, 2019

Conflict is in every job and it’s not always a bad thing. But at the public level — for a community to thrive — it needs to be managed effectively.

When looking for a good place to live or work, what a community can offer is often a big part of the decision.

 So how do these neighborhoods and downtowns become attractive places to spend time? It stems from good policy work done by local government.

Political Science Assistant Professor Rusi Sun spends her research efforts exploring government at this ground level. She finds the city government dynamic interesting — she means this sincerely, not in a tongue-in-cheek way — because of the long-term impact administrative decisions can have on a community.

Sun began her research on government organizations while earning her Ph.D. in Public Administration at Rutgers. Her latest focus is on the working relationships of appointed city managers and elected city council officials. Although the council hires the manager, she said their association isn’t the typical employee-boss one: In a good working team, the city council relies heavily on the city manager’s expertise and advisement on policy matters.

Sun said she recently took part in a research project with a colleague in Missouri that examined city managers roles in their communities. What stood out? A high turnover rate of city managers in the “Show Me State” during the past two years. The often-cited reason city managers gave for their departure? Conflict with city council.

“This finding was very interesting, but it is not something that’s desirable,” said Sun, who said shifts in city manager roles to serve in a more public-facing way and the increasing number of city council members who cannot solely focus on their elected office because they have full-time employment elsewhere has created a power struggle. “For effective long-term policy in a community, it is very important that they work as a team. High turnover in a city manager role can lead to instability in the community. It can also put the city in a bad position to attract good city manager candidates in the future. No one wants this.”

So Sun decided to explore that professional conflict a little further. Sun reached out to hundreds of city managers in six Midwestern states, Michigan included, to learn more about their management style in conflict situations.

To be clear, Sun doesn’t see professional conflict as a bad thing — she said it leads to new ideas and opportunities for analysis. The conflict itself isn’t her focus, but rather the management of it.

Her newest project — Integrating, Obligating, Dominating and Avoiding: A Survey Experiment on City Managers’ Choice of Conflict Handling Strategies — looks at how city managers handle conflict situations with their city’s elected officials to see if there’s an optimal strategy.

Spoiler alert: There’s not.

But what she did find that managers were inclined to choose the optimal strategy based on “contexture factors,” or factors relevant to the conflict situation, proving that those matter. 

She said the city managers, given a survey scenario where they had to reduce the level of services once provided for budgetary reasons, were each randomly given situational modules that informed them how critical an issue was or how much informal power (i.e. expertise/knowledge) they held with the council. They then indicated how they’d handle a disagreement with city council in the proposed situation.“The results showed that the higher informal power they had, the more likely they’d choose dominating and the less likely they’d choose to obligate or avoid. If the issue was critical, they would approach it with more care and were more likely to use the collaborative integrating strategy. I was interested in how these factors influence choice.”

Sun said she’ll take data from this research to her next project that will explore how a city manager’s motivation, personality and predisposition interact with contexture factors.

“My logic is this: Before we prescribe something — like give conflict handling guidelines — we need to step back and ask more questions. If there isn’t an optimal strategy, we need to better understand the factors that go into making choices so that we can help support the people who are in these decision-making positions. The goal is low turnover and effective leadership, which is good for the city manager, good for the city council and good for the community.”

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