City Managers: How to avoid the third envelope with effective relationship management

October 23, 2015 – Brandon Camhi


The departing City Manager gives his successor three numbered envelopes and tells her not to open them until a crisis arises. A year in, a sewage spill pollutes the nearby river, prompting EPA fines and public outrage over seemingly inept management. She opens the first envelope and reads, “Blame your predecessor.” Year two: another crisis. She unseals the second envelope. “Hire an Assistant City Manager.” Eighteen months later, near the middle of the fourth year, a major retailer leaves town and blames the zoning board for refusing to accommodate a reasonable request, seemingly confirming rumors of inept planning. She opens the third envelope and extracts the note inside. “Prepare three envelopes.”

This joke — cliché among City Managers — reveals something City Managers know all too well: the role is not for the fainthearted. The fulfillment from improving city services is inseparable from an arduous work schedule, complex management demands, and relationships.

Relationships with a well-intentioned Council that may chart an incorrect course or demand too much. Relationships with a Finance Department that sometimes maintains excessive control on city finances. Relationships with Department Heads that request more money for their departments to improve service yet may not have a holistic view of a government’s needs.

New operational reporting and analytics tools help City Managers improve these relationships, lowering the possibility of having to open the third envelope. Here’s how:

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City Manager <>The City Council

Quickly assemble reports to inform your Council

Councils without timely data must use other factors, such as politics or instincts, when making decisions. City Managers in turn implement these directives, even if they are not rooted in current, complete, or reliable information. It’s also hard to provide Council timely information on city’s performance against Council’s goals — increasing the Council’s annoyance at the Manager.

Operational reporting and analytics injects timely data into this relationship by producing live reports with visualizations in seconds. Managers can transmit timely information to Council before important decisions are made — grounding policy choices in data instead of politics. For example, McKinney, Texas’ City Manager uses these technologies to quickly collect and assemble Department reports at the end of each month, ensuring that elected officials can ground decisions in data.

City Manager <> The Finance Director

Have a realistic conversation about the numbers

Data visualization tools that leverage current data enable City Managers and Finance Directors to have realistic conversations about the financial impact of proposed initiatives. If a platform can quickly generate reports without requiring significant training, then the platform can facilitate a discussion grounded in financial facts.

City Manager <>Department Heads

Align Department Heads with citywide objectives

City Managers can use operational reporting and analytics tools to highlight abnormal performance within a department. For example, a City Manager can ask a Department Head why the department has drastically more overdue 311 service requests than the city average — a conversation made easier with current data. Data visualization tools also enable City Managers to show Department Heads other priorities, helping to defuse unrealistic funding requests.

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Operational reporting and analytics can help City Managers dodge the third envelope. Curating relationships with stakeholders is essential, and reporting tools can ground relationships in facts and transparency, leading to better outcomes for all involved.

Category: Management