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A look ahead at 2017 with ICMA Executive Director Bob O’Neill

ICMA Executive Director Bob O'Neill looks at the year ahead

4 min read


This interview by SmartBrief with ICMA Executive Director Bob O’Neill is part of the Best of 2016 special report published by ICMA SmartBrief. Sign up for the free email newsletter.

What are the biggest trends of the past year that will continue into 2017?

There are three major issues. The first one is the increasing importance of local government, given the political and financial challenges at the federal level and increasingly at the state level. If something’s going to happen, it’s more often going to be started and accomplished at the local or regional level. This is also creating increasing tension between local governments and state legislatures.

Many states are preempting local government initiatives because someone at the state legislature doesn’t support them. It’s happened with education, taxation, finance and social issues, but obviously the poster child is what’s happening in North Carolina over the “bathroom bill.” The city council decided it was an important issue, and the state legislature thought they had gone too far. Local governments are building broader coalitions, but it can be difficult, because often the folks who are upset don’t live in the affected communities.

Meanwhile, financial issues, such as opportunities for local governments to have access to things such as sales taxes, are going to be important in the next year.

What are some of the most exciting developments expected in the next year?

There is enormous energy in local governments, and they are becoming increasingly important. Rather than wait for their intergovernmental partners to become players, many local governments are initiating programs and projects on their own across the US and in other countries. I haven’t run the numbers on the initiatives on every ballot, but the states I’ve looked at have lots of them. And despite all of the angst over the federal election, an overwhelming majority of initiatives that required voter approval got approved. I think that’s pretty exciting. Local governments are not waiting for others to act.

Meanwhile, smart city initiatives are allowing local governments to understand a lot more about energy use and other challenges. I think we’re just at the beginning, where many of these emerging technologies will allow us to make better decisions about things that impact communities. We’re starting to see the ability of communities to be able to access and analyze data in an entirely different way.

What do you see in the near future for police-community relations?

There is a lot of dialogue occurring among elected and appointed officials, as well as among police and commumity leaders. I think there’s a genuine interest on three dimensions: finding alternatives to deadly force, finding new ways to address mental health challenges and ensuring that police departments and communities have places where they can talk through some of the issues around race and other topics. There will probably be a lot more citizen engagement with police, but this isn’t just about them. There are much broader issues around poverty, housing, social justice and mental health. 

Do you have any advice for attracting new employees to public service?

I think we need to be diligent about making public service attractive so that the best and brightest talent are drawn to this important work. I think we have to be cognizant of what kind of changes need to take place to make public service an attractive opportunity for people. Sometimes the rhetoric about those in public service makes it very difficult to attract young people. ICMA has the Life, Well Run program, among other initiatives, at the college and university level to try to attract young employees. We now have more than 70 student chapters at campuses around the country to encourage people to be interested in local government in particular and public service in general.