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Public Servants DO Create Public Policy

February 15, 2017

A recent Re:CAP publication captured a conversation between Dr. Nelson Lim and Ted Gaebler, which referenced that city managers “are not paid to make public policy.” Although that is the textbook answer, in our current local government environment nothing can be farther from the truth. We must recognize that the local government manager today, either intentionally or unintentionally, effectuates, if not directly creates, public policy in their respective city or county. I will not opine whether this is good or bad, but rather simply state it is a functional reality, like it or not.

Let me try to illustrate this concept with two typical local government public works functions: streetlights and speed limits.

There is not a city in this country that has not received a request by a citizen for the installation of a street light— usually far enough down the street that it will not shine in their window but close enough to provide them with sufficient illumination for their driveway. When this request comes into Public Works Central, a trained official goes out in the field to verify that the street is dark. Subsequently, a recommendation for installation is made or not. Is this the policy of the governing body— to put lights wherever citizens request them? If Public Works has established standards and guidelines regarding the placement of street lights (i.e., minimum candle feet), has that standard been ratified by the governing body? Has the type of light fixture been approved by the governing body? The point is simply this: the mere budgetary allocation by a governing body for street lighting should not be perceived by anyone as a delegation of policy-making authority, but policy is ultimately made when public servants make decisions necessary for the reasonable operation of the community.

Another example of policy decisions falling to local government managers is the establishment of speed limits. I remember when I first moved to town in a previous position; I lived on a residential street classified as an arterial road with a speed limit of 40 mph. This posed a dilemma for me – I enjoyed driving the road at 40 mph, but getting out of my driveway in the morning was a bit of a challenge. So, as any good city manager would, I wanted to meet the person in charge of establishing speed limits in my community. It turns out that there really wasn’t anyone that sets the speed limits, but rather the “design speed” of the road was the determinant factor. What we fail to realize is that someone had to tell the engineer what the design speed for the road should be. The road could be designed for 30 mph just as easily as 40 mph. But who should make that decision? Often it is the city engineer or the public works director; seldom is it the governing body.

The bottom line is that street lighting, speed limits, and a myriad of other public works functions (for example: determining the storm/severe weather structural design standards, pavement replacement standards, etc.) are all functionally policy creation activities. So if the governing body is in charge of policy, why are they not also in on the policy formulation and adoption process of the abovementioned standards?

Often, the line between what city managers call “standards” and what the members of governing bodies believe is “policy” is blurred. There well may be logical precepts that determine the right level of illumination for a street and the right speed for an arterial road segment, but they may be in conflict with the policy of the governing body. Whenever a standard is implemented locally absent the ratification of a governing body, hasn’t there been a functional implementation of policy? These examples reinforce that either directly or indirectly, public policy in cities and counties is often made at the administrative level and often without the explicit consent of the governing body.


A previous version of this post was featured by the APWA Reporter.

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Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu