New Virginia Tech course teaches lessons in local government leadership

When Jack Tuttle was studying for his master’s degree in public administration (MPA) he knew he wanted to work in local government, but most of his courses focused on federal issues.

   

As part of Virginia Tech's local government management program, Williamsburg, Va., City Manager Jack Tuttle (on screen) teaches students gathered in Roanoke. As part of Virginia Tech's local government management program, Williamsburg, Va., City Manager Jack Tuttle (on screen) teaches students gathered in Roanoke.

“My MPA was a great way to get my foot in the door, but the coursework itself did not prepare me much for local government,” recalled the city manager of Williamsburg, Va.

Tuttle’s story is common. Few MPA programs focus on local government, so people who want to work at that level usually do much of their learning on the job. Tuttle is a fairly typical manager in yet another respect. He’s a baby boomer and approaching retirement age.

Many industries will soon be wrestling with how to replace leaders from the baby boom generation. But for local governments nationwide, finding qualified managers – appointed officials who handle the day-to-day running of government but answer to elected officials – could prove difficult.

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA), a leading collector of data on the profession, uses terms like “quiet crisis” and “retirement tidal wave” when discussing the future. ICMA strongly urges its members to focus on succession planning.

Demographics are a big part of the problem, but in recent years many local governments cut costs by eliminating middle-management positions and internship programs that were training grounds for managers, said ICMA Researcher Rob Carty. There is significant concern about where the next generation of mangers will come from, he added.

   

The first 26 students in the local government management certificate program already work in government. The first 26 students in the local government management certificate program already work in government. Sixteen governments enrolled employees, including Lynchburg, Va., which sent (from left) Shirley Deen, Leslie King, Jonathan Wright, Brandon Zuidema, and Jason Campbell.

In the commonwealth, Virginia Tech is helping to address the problem by introducing a master’s level certificate program focused on local government management. It’s a four-course, two-year program taught by current or former managers, including Tuttle.

“All of us who are in this [manager’s] position have an obligation … to help the next generation along,” Tuttle said.

The idea for the program started with Virginia Tech alumnus Ryan Spitzer, who is now town manager of Glasgow, Va. Before taking that job, Spitzer, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental policy and planning in 2004 and a master’s degree in agricultural and applied economics in 2006, was working at a Blacksburg, Va.-based company called Tele-Works that has local governments and utilities as clients. Spitzer started talking about the effect of baby boomer retirement on local governments with his boss and fellow Hokie Steven Critchfield.

Critchfield, a Blacksburg resident who earned his bachelor’s of agricultural and applied economics in 1980, reached out to some of his contacts in local government and industry to raise start-up money for a new credential program at his alma mater.

More than two dozen companies contributed money that helped the program move from idea to reality. The Virginia Local Government Management Association was instrumental in creating the program in partnership with Virginia Tech’s Center for Public Administration and Policy (CPAP), part of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

Twenty-six students, including Spitzer, enrolled when the program debuted in fall 2008. The program initially was limited to people already working in local governments, but it has been expanded heading into its second year. Degree-seeking graduate students now can seek entry, get the local government management credential, and apply credits from the four courses toward their degrees.

   

Bob Stripling (standing) has managed several municipalities, including Blacksburg, where the main Virginia Tech campus is located. He helps to run the university’s local government management certificate program and teaches the first of four courses in the curriculum. Bob Stripling (standing) has managed several municipalities, including Blacksburg, where the main Virginia Tech campus is located. He helps to run the university’s local government management certificate program and teaches the first of four courses in the curriculum.

The local government management certificate program is run by CPAP and is intended to address “a serious gap in the graduate curriculum throughout the country,” said Laura Jensen, who chairs CPAP.

Bob Stripling helps run the program and teaches its introductory course, which provides an overview of issues that local government managers are likely to face. A running theme of his class is how politics complicates management decisions.

“It’s not a bad thing,” says Stripling, who has managed several municipalities, including Blacksburg, Va. “It’s just that you have to balance the expertise you bring from a technical standpoint with elected officials who often do not have any management background.”

The first class of students in the program is made up of employees from 16 different municipalities, many of which are far away from Virginia Tech’s main campus. Students go to the university’s commonwealth campus center that is most convenient for them for the classes.

Amanda Huffman, assistant director of economic development for Staunton, Va., is one of the dozen students who gathered at Virginia Tech's Roanoke Center for the class Tuttle taught remotely from Richmond in spring 2009.

“The class surpassed my expectation,” she said. “We are learning such practical information.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Albert Raboteau at (540) 231-2844.

What does a local government manager do?

City, county, or town managers run governments on a day-to-day basis and implement policies decided upon by elected officials 

Despite the impact managers have on the communities they serve “a lot of people don’t even understand that this profession exists,” said Bonnie Svrcek, deputy manager of Lynchburg, Va., who is a regional vice president in the International City/County Management Association.

Svrcek said ICMA has been working to raise the profile of the profession, and she played an important role in getting Virginia Tech’s local graduate certificate in local government management off the ground.

“As far as we know Virginia Tech is the first university to have a certificate in local government management program – it’s very exciting,” she said.

Giving back

    Steven Critchfield

Steven Critchfield founded Tele-Works, a company that provides interactive voice response to local governments and utilities.

He played a key role raising money for Virginia Tech’s program to help prepare future city, town, or county managers.

Critchfield said it was a way to give back to the industry his company serves. He also is a Virginia Tech alumnus who does a lot to give back to his alma mater.

Securing the homeland

The graduate certificate in local government management is one of several programs Virginia Tech offers to help public servants develop skills they need to address the important issues.

For example, a new graduate certificate program focused on homeland security policy is being offered in the National Capital Region by the university’s Center for Public Administration and Policy and Center for Technology, Security, and Public Policy (CTSP).

“We’ve combined serious homeland security practitioners with folks that have policy experience, and have placed them in an academic role to communicate that knowledge to our students,” said retired Maj. Gen. Bruce Lawlor, a former chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who now directs the CTSP. 

Learn more

Putting theory into practice

    Karen E. Till, associate professor of urban affairs and planning, and government and international affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, is leading an undergraduate studio project wherein students work with the Community Development and Housing Program of the non-profit Total Action against Poverty and the Hurt Park neighborhood in Roanoke.

Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies faculty and students often work with local governments to benefit communities.

Learn about several such projects in the related Virginia Tech News story: "Urban planning, architecture, landscape architecture projects underway for Roanoke."

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