Form of Government

Form of government refers to the legal structure under which municipalities and counties in the United States organize, e.g., the council-manager vs. the mayor-council form of government. The topic also refers to governance issues and how a local government operates.

Featured Content

From the Ballot Box: 2017 Election Results

A number of form-of-government initiatives were included on ballots in May and November 2017. Some are still being decided.

Council-Manager Form of Government Resource Package

ICMA's first-response information packet on professional local government management through the council-manager structure.

Professional Management Drives Local Government Efficiency and Effectiveness

Professional local government management—through which elected officials hire a highly trained, nonpolitical chief executive to oversee the day-to-day operations of a community—makes a significant difference in that jurisdiction’s creditworthiness, efficiency, and ability to build community, according to a recent review conducted by ICMA.  A review of Moody’s Aaa-rated local governments in 2016 revealed that more than 66 percent of the 179 municipalities that earned Moody’s highest bond rating employ a professional manager. And an examination of the 40 jurisdictions that earned the coveted All-America City designation from the National Civic League between 2013 and 2016 revealed that 75 percent of those communities were also professionally managed. “The good news about the important role of professional management in ensuring a community’s creditworthiness and overall civic innovation comes as no surprise to ICMA,” says Executive Director Marc Ott. “The findings support what ICMA members and supporters have known all along: that professional local government management and the council-manager form of government—which combines strong political leadership and effective management capacity—makes an important difference in the quality of life for the residents in those communities that employ it.” Definition of Professionally Managed ICMA defines a professional manager as a local government chief appointed officer who, at a minimum: Has direct responsibility for policy formulation on overall problems. Has major responsibility for the preparation and administration of a jurisdiction’s operating and capital improvements budgets. Exercises significant influence in the appointment of key administrative personnel. Has an ongoing, direct relationship with the operating department heads on the implementation and administration of the programs. Was hired as a result of her or his educational and administrative background and qualifications. Is a member of ICMA and, therefore, must adhere to the ICMA Code of Ethics, which was adopted by ICMA in 1924 and which governs each member’s professional and personal conduct. The high percent of Moody’s Aaa-rated municipalities and counties that employ a professional manager or administrator suggests a strong correlation between professional management and a community’s creditworthiness. Moody’s established its system of rating securities to provide investors with a simple method of evaluating the “future relative creditworthiness” of securities. Obligations, such as municipal bonds, that are rated Aaa are “judged to be of the highest quality, subject to the lowest level of credit risk,” according to the company’s Rating System and Definitions. Since 1949, the National Civic League has recognized and celebrated the best in American civic innovation with the prestigious All-America City Award. The Award, bestowed to 10 communities annually (more than 500 in all), shines a spotlight on innovative efforts to bring all aspects of the community together to tackle the most pressing local issues. These new findings reinforce the results reported in a 2011 operations efficiency benchmarking study, “Smarter, Faster, Cheaper,” published by IBM Global Business Services, which found that cities that operate under the council-manager form of government and thus have a professional local government manager are nearly 10 percent more efficient than those that operate under the mayor-council form. In the IBM study, David Edwards, who then led the Smarter Government Campaign for IBM’s Public Sector Strategy and Innovation Practice, examined publicly available data for 100 of the largest cities in the United States. Edwards concluded that this finding "appears to validate the assumption underlying city manager forms of government, notably that investing executive authority in professional management shielded from direct political interference should yield more efficiently managed cities. To put it another way, even if a city operates within conditions most favorable for efficiency – no collective bargaining, geographically compact, and peaking on all scale curves – management choices can still lead a city down the path to inefficiency. It is both a sobering and encouraging conclusion."

ICMA Local Government Recognition

ICMA recognition falls into two categories: council-manager and general management. The criteria related to the council-manager government category are less flexible than those for the general management category. The reasons for this derive from the historical significance and the nature of the council-manager form.Downloads:  ICMA Recognition Application (415.57 KB) Here are answers to some of the more frequently asked questions about recognition.What is ICMA Recognition?ICMA Recognition is formal acknowledgement by the ICMA Executive Board and membership that a local government has established an executive, chief appointed officer position-- such as a professional city, town, or county manager--and granted that position certain authorities and responsibilities. How long does ICMA Recognition last?Recognition lasts as long as the legal basis establishing the position of professional management remains unchanged.  A change in managers does not affect the recognition status of the local government; a change in the form of government does. What kind of local governments are eligible for ICMA Recognition?Any general purpose city, town, village, township, borough, county, council of governments, or state/provincial association of local governments that has established by legal documents a form of government that satisfies the ICMA recognition criteria is eligible.What is the basis for ICMA recognition?Compliance with the ICMA recognition criteria is the basis.  Evidence of meeting the criteria is either an ordinance, resolution, charter, special act of the state legislature, or another legal document establishing a position of professional management.What kinds of recognition are there?There are two kinds: recognition under the council-manager (CM) criteria and under the general management (GM) criteria.  Councils of governments and state/provincial associations of local governments are always recognized under the GM criteria; local governments may be recognized under either CM or GM criteria, depending upon their individual features.The criteria for the council-manager category are less flexible than for the general management category, because of the nature of the council-manager form and its historical significance.  It represents an easily definable form of local government with a limited variety of implementation.  ICMA's origin rests on the council-manager form and its members have come to see it as the preferred form of governmental organization.  Although it is not seen as the only means of providing for overall professional management, the intent is to recognize its contributions to local government by distinguishing it within the wide variety of administrative organizations in democratic governments throughout the world.What happens after recognition?The local government is listed in ICMA's Who's Who as a jurisdiction that provides for a position of professional management. Criteria for Recognition of a Council-Manager Position(Adopted October 11, 1969, and revised July 22, 1989)AppointmentThe manager can be appointed by the majority vote of the council for a definite or indefinite term and must be subject to termination by a majority vote of the council at any time.GuidelineIt is recognized that the process for appointing the manager may include participation by others, in nominating or recommending candidates to be considered.   However, the final responsibility or authority of appointment as well as dismissal of the manager must lie with a majority of the council.Policy FormulationThe position should have direct responsibility for policy formulation on overall problems.GuidelineFinal authority for policy formulation rests with the council, but the manager should play an integral role in developing and analyzing alternatives for the council’s consideration and be responsible for implementation of council-approved policy.BudgetThe manager should be designated by legislation as having responsibility for preparation of the budget, presentation to the council, and direct responsibility for the administration of the council-approved budget.GuidelineWhile the manager should have responsibility for preparing and presenting the budget to the council, it is recognized that many parties often participate in the budget process and may contribute to the development of the manager’s recommended budget.  Once approved by council, the manager is responsible for implementing and administering the budget.Appointing AuthorityLegislation should delegate full authority to the manager for the appointment and removal of at least most of the heads of the principal departments and functions of the local government.GuidelineThe manager’s ability to independently select the most qualified personnel for key department head positions and remove them when necessary is essential to his or her administrative effectiveness.  Within this context, it is recognized that a manager may choose to consult with and seek consensus from council on the appointment and dismissal of key department heads. Though the preferred arrangement is for the manager to have independent authority to appoint and remove key department heads, recognition in the C-M category will also be extended to those communities in which council is given the authority by legislation to confirm, validate, or ratify such personnel actions, as long as responsibility for recommending them remains with the manager.Organizational RelationshipsThe department heads the manager appoints should be designated by legislation as administratively responsible to the manager.QualificationsQualifications for the position should be based on the educational and administrative background of the candidates.GuidelineAppointment to the manager’s position should be based on professional experience, administrative qualifications, and education to ensure that the community is served by a competent, well-trained professional.  Political affiliations should not in any way influence appointment.Recognition of a General Management Position(Adopted April 19, 1969, and revised July 22, 1989)AppointmentThe position should be filled by appointment made by an elected representative or representatives and shall be responsible to an elected representative and/or representatives.GuidelineOverall management is the link between the political leadership and program execution.  It is essential that the person filling the position of overall management be appointed by and responsible for the legislative body or the chief elected official of the local government.Policy Formulation(Same as for council-manager position.)GuidelineThe position of overall management is responsible for creative initiative in the development of public policy alternatives and recommendations for consideration by elected officials throughout the spectrum of the local government’s functions.  Responsibility for policy formulation means that the person in the position has access to the council and works with its members even though s/he may report directly to the mayor.  In the case of a council-appointed administrator, his/her access should be direct.BudgetThe position should have major responsibility for the preparation and administration of the operating and capital improvements budget.GuidelineBoth elements should be present because it is through the administration of the operating budget that basic management control is exercised, and it is the budget preparation process that concerns itself with resource use.  The term “major responsibility” refers to appointed positions and not elected positions.  This may become critical in evaluating the work of a mayor-appointed administrator.Appointing AuthorityThe position should exercise significant influence in the appointment of key administrative personnel.GuidelineThe direct or legal appointive power will vary considerably.  The fact that the position may have authority only to recommend the appointment of department heads should not in and of itself exclude the local government from recognition.  Neither is there any fixed formula as to which or how appointments may be influenced.It will be necessary to view this in the context of the position’s total responsibility, particularly for the budget process.  It is important that the position should have authority to appoint a sufficient share of the management staff to control budget preparation and administration.Organizational RelationshipsThe position should have a continuing direct relationship with the operating department heads on the implementation and administration of the programs.GuidelineIt is important that the position be recognized within the local government organization as the principal general management professional.  The relationship is most clear if the position has direct supervision of department heads.  The real issue, however, is the day-in and day-out influence the position has over department heads.  At a minimum, it should be expected that overall management responsibility includes the status of first peer among administrative peers in a horizontal organization.Qualifications(Same as for council-manager position.)GuidelineThis criterion simply means that the person should be chosen on merit and that s/he should have significant administrative experience and educational background.  It excludes the strictly “political” appointment.  It does not mean, however, that the person must have local government experience per se.DownloadsICMA Recognition Application (415.57 KB)