The Three Things Governments Must Teach Their Next Leaders

March 29, 2016 – Mike McCann


March 29, 2016

Read on to learn the three things your government must teach when building a succession plan!

Succession planning is a difficult topic for most of us. As soon as we start to think about it, we get distracted by the sheer amount of training, institutional knowledge, and personal networking that goes into our work – and how seemingly impossible it will be to pass all that to the next generation. Governments should plan to transmit three things to the next generation of leaders: cultural belonging, technical training, and access to historical information.

How to adapt to government culture

Adapting to the culture of a long-standing government is the first key to succession planning. The transition may not be easy for young people and others new to the public sector. People used to focusing on finishing the current semester, attending next weekend’s party, or increasing the next quarter’s results often have trouble adjusting to governments’ lengthy timelines.

This is not a matter of government bureaucrats against fast-paced corporate managers. Instead, the sectors have different incentives. Rather than delivering near-term stockholder profits, the government looks back at 100 years of delivering services and investments for their residents, while planning for the next 100 years of roads, sewers, water plants, parks, airports, and other physical assets, funded by 30-year bonds and perpetual tax rolls.

To be successful and comfortable in the long-term, new-comers to government service have to understand and empathize with executives, legislators, and citizens. They must also bond with their own teams and peers across the government to work effectively. Finally, they must learn who controls key information, who the real decision-makers are, who to tiptoe carefully around.

Even those with government experience have a lot of cultural learning to do, for every government has a unique culture. In my experience, one City Council debated the technical merits of two alternative self-contained breathing apparatus systems for Fire, at length, and the other wanted just a high level overview of multi-million dollar construction projects.

How to access historical information

Easy access to historical data and insight into how that data has been transformed into information and knowledge is essential. Most governments have substantial investments in long-term assets, and are paying off long-term debts. The records of those transactions and the analysis that led to them are often buried in paper and digital records.

Current budgets and financial statements often depend on up to ten years of data which may cross different technologies and owners. Sharp trainees can find and use this data, but only with a serious investment of time and thought. Anything that can be done through modern software to help accelerate the learning curve or reduce barriers pays large dividends for the government.

One example of this challenge was seared into my memory by many long hours spent pouring over a meticulously detailed Excel workbook with 25 sheets full of links, named ranges and complex formulas. My predecessor, who was gone by the time I arrived, had spent several years refining this masterpiece, built for the sole purpose of preparing the city’s annual State Controller’s Report. But these spreadsheets grew increasingly cumbersome both when we added new accounts to our system which in turn had to be inserted into the workbook, and when the State made minor changes in their rules which also had to be accommodated.

We all need to answer how we will prepare the way, provide the history, and grant access to data; supply the templates and models; and ramp up the speed of learning and inculturation for a new generation of managers on the way in as our own generation heads to our own new challenges.

How to thrive with a set of technical skills

Our HR teams carefully vet technical skills during the hiring process. Specific college degrees, advanced courses, and prior work history are expected to prepare the candidate not to do the job – but to be prepared to learn to do the job. We know it takes a significant amount of training, coaching, job shadowing, and mistake-making to master a complex new job in finance. We have to invest a lot of time in this process before new employees produce a net gain in productivity.

The way forward

There is no simple or single answer to succession planning, but we know many pieces that we can assemble into a workable solution.

  1. We can start with educating our teams and ourselves about the upcoming generations who have their own visions of success and achievement.
  2. We can prepare or update written policies and procedures to give new staff a framework to learn in.
  3. We can keep orderly, well labeled records, in paper and on our networks.
  4. We can annotate important Excel worksheets and other working documents to help new users understand our intent, data sources, and outputs.
  5. We can install good, modern financial and reporting systems, build solid reports, and load many years of history so to create a central trusted repository for historical trends and future forecasts.

If we do these things now, and do them well, we can leave our governments stronger than ever,  in the best possible conditions to thrive in the next century. That is our duty to our teams and citizens, and a legacy we can be proud of.


Mike McCann moved into government service in Ukiah, then Monterey CA, after beginning his career in corporate (ADP, Wells Fargo Bank, Blue Shield of CA), not-for-profit (Blue Shield of Ca, Mendocino Private Industry Council), and start-up accounting. For the last 20 years, Mike has been hands-on with budget, financial reporting and accounting operations, including City budgets and CAFRs. He holds a B.S.  in Accounting from SJSU and M.S. in Instructional Technology from  CSUMB.

Contact Mike with questions or comments at mmccann@opengov.com.

Category: Government Finance