Case study 1
City Managers in Romania – Promoters of Change
Nicolae Moldovan | Former City Manager of Alba Iulia
Ioana Leca | City Manager of Sibiu
Marian Panaite | City Manager of Sinaia
Bogdan Moșescu | Former City Manager of Medgidia
The role of city managers in Romania is a recent innovation that only appeared in the public administration legislation in 2006. The initiative came from the Ministry of Administration and Internal Affairs, as a step towards a more modern and professional public administration. The purpose of introducing this function was to professionalize local government, by attracting public administration specialists who combine technical, scientific, administrative and managerial skills.
Apart from that, the introduction of city managers (or public administrators) was seen as a necessity for building a modern public administration in the context of the separation of political and executive influence.
The model of city managers in Romania was inspired by other European countries where the coordination of the local public service is handled by someone other than the mayor, such as Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Sweden. Since the inspiration came from the Anglo-Saxon system, it was adapted to the Romanian reality and context.
Since 2011, city managers from around Romania have their own NGO, through which they campaign for professional management in the public sector. Its members are administrators from all levels of the local public administration: communes, towns, municipalities and county councils. According to their data, there are currently 348 city managers, out of 3,221 communes, towns and municipalities where such a public office could have been established.
Despite examples of best practices from around Romania, the office of city manager is still unknown to average citizens and there is a lack of interest in implementing this position. This stems from the fact that, according to Law 215/2001 on public administration, the position is not mandatory within the public administration: “at the level of municipalities and cities, the mayor may propose to the local council that the office of public administrator be set up, within the maximum number of posts approved.”
According to the law, what differentiates city managers from other officials inside the public administration is that they are appointed under a management contract with the mayor, with the task of coordinating the local public administration or public services of local interest.
Appointed mainly because of the need to delegate some of the mayor’s numerous duties, city managers usually deal with all the issues of which the mayor is in charge, starting from access to European and government funds for the development of the city to the coordination of public services of local interest.
In addition, the job description and the management contract may also specify other delegated tasks, such as improving the efficiency of public service departments, assigning the distribution of responsibilities among departments, involvement in collaboration projects for development at county level, and organizing the activities of the mayor. Apart from that, city managers may also be in charge of the rela- tionship with the media and with non-governmental organizations.
Another important fact is that these tasks are not allocated in a uniform way among the various county councils and municipalities. The job description of city managers is flexible and depends on the strategy/vision of the mayor or the president of the county council, on the complexity of the tasks at the relevant administrative level and also on the skills and the experience of the city managers themselves.
Regarding the collaboration between local authorities and local CSOs, city managers are expected to be promoters of change within the public administration, to foster collaborations and to come up with new ideas for improving them.
The impact of city managers on local communities may vary according to different factors (resistance from public officials, city managers’ own drive to take action, etc.) but our research revealed one element that was constant: a positive relationship between mayors and city managers leads to positive change in the community.
All the city managers we interviewed recognize the role of civil society in changing communities, with different nuances depending on their local context. CSOs are described as (or expected to be) content generators for new public policies, strategic partners in their fields of activity, watchdogs, fundraisers, or initiators of small projects that contribute to the improvement of life in the community.
The collaboration with civil society starts by supporting CSOs through public authorization of their activities and extends to support with their social projects, such as writing proposals on behalf of NGOs, contributing funds or teaming up with CSOs on different projects, such as hackathons, in order to collect inputs from civil society on different subjects.
While political polarization erodes democracy at the local level, our interviews revealed that the local political involvement of CSOs seems neutral and fair, with some exceptions.
Local best practices
Creating ownership in Alba Iulia through formal and informal channels: The local authorities have tried to involve citizens in their activities to give them greater ownership of the city’s activities: they made it into the Guinness World Records twice (for the biggest hug ever and for the biggest country map formed by people). Alba Iulia was also the first city to create a brand manual. In the first stage, when designing the logo, the municipality involved over 1,400 citizens, photographing their faces and using these images to create the logo.
The local community barometer is another tool used by the municipality to ask citizens about different community problems and to identify citizen and private sector needs. The community barometer is defined as a scientific research project carried out through a sociological study conducted annually by the Center for Sociological Research of “1 December 1918” University.
As a city where the average age tends towards the elderly, Alba Iulia organized meetings with associations of managers of publicly-owned apartments and the Council of Seniors in order to get input from senior citizens about their problems and needs. This project is called BlocManagerNet and its main objectives are to create a channel for online interaction between apartment managers, citizens of Alba Iulia and the municipality, in order to make the work of apartment administrators more efficient and more transparent, as well as to simplify the process of verification and communication within the municipal administration.
Apart from informal face-to-face meetings, the city has also launched two applications: e-alba iulia, through which residents can receive notifications from the municipality about events, public works or planned projects, and another one (Smart alert Alba Iulia) that promotes citizen participation by enabling them to submit reports about potholes, uncollected waste, vandalized public property, etc. Mobile city apps are starting to be more and more common among local authorities and the same is true for Sibiu: the Sibiu City App enables citizens to notify the administration about incidents in the city while also offering information about key landmarks for both tourists and residents.
Expanding networks and connections in a mountain city. Sinaia is a small city with 15,000 inhabitants, with a large elderly population. Because the city is so small, there are only a few NGOs; one active NGO organizes activities for elderly people, another one is the local scouts group and a third is focused on environment issues. Given the unavailability of local partners due to the lack of an active civil society, Sinaia looks towards national and international NGOs and other partners for collaboration, such as Erasmus+, various leadership programs, Greenpeace, MagiCamp and SMURD. The municipality’s solution is to groom small local organizations for leadership roles or to help them to become local subsidiaries of bigger NGOs, but its main concern is that the activities of these groups will reflect the local needs.
“There is no such thing as problems, just the wrong questions.” Ioana Leca, City Manager in Sibiu
Lack of local NGOs
In small communities, one of the most significant challenges for local authorities is that the civil society is underdeveloped, alongside an occasional lack of know-how and professionalization on the part of civil society groups. As a result, activities that could be outsourced to NGOs (needs assessments, finding solutions) are instead assigned to independent experts.
In other communities, even if the situation is a little better, there are other gaps, notably if certain fields, such as the environment or the cultural sector, are not covered by civil society. In Alba Iulia, the city manager experienced this in particular when he sought to create part- nerships in these fields but found no NGOs from which to gather input.
Moreover, in many cases, the underdevelopment of local civil society also means that no NGOs are available that could act as watchdogs over the activities of the local authorities.
Reluctance inside the public administration
City managers also face opposition within the public administration, and to some extent, all of them are familiar with a certain degree of conservatism on the part of the public administration. Proper communication and presenting the pros and cons of a decision can help to overcome these barriers, and the same is true if the city manager has a good working relationship with the mayor and exhibits personal drive.
The city managers of both Sinaia and Medgidia had to contend with such opposition, but things didn’t turn out the same in each case. In his activity as city manager of Sinaia, Marian Panaite had the support of the mayor, which made it easier for him to implement his ideas despite the reluctance he encountered within the public administration. In addition, he stressed that the fact that both he and the mayor had previously worked in the CSO sector, and thus entered the public administration with experience from the other side, facilitated the development of collaborations and led to greater openness on their part.
On the other hand, Bogdan Moșescu’s stated that he was unable to fulfil his function as city manager in Medgidia due to his bad working relationship with the mayor, which he cited as a hindrance to the effective discharge of his activities.
How to make the collaboration work
Advice for better collaboration
Our interviewees mentioned the following preconditions for effective collaboration, some of which may seem obvious:
- Organizing regular meetings where the parties can find solutions to a community’s problems and create a relationship based on trust between them;
- Accepting the informed criticism of CSOs regarding the local authority’s activities or failures to act;
- Maintaining dialog with them despite such criticism, and last but not least
- Maintaining an honest dialog.
Come cities transformed participatory budgeting into a strategic tool for connecting with local CSOs, with positive feedback from the lo- cal community, while in other, small and medium-sized communities, citizens were more reluctant to respond, if at all. For example, last year’s winning projects of the participatory budgeting in Sibiu focused on education (investing in the necessary equipment to ensure the proper functioning of the Children’s Palace), sports (a multifunctional sports pitch), the environment (a biological air filter, waste bins for selective collection) and urban mobility (a multi-level parking garage and a panoramic terrace).
Areas for improvement
All our interviewees offered practical and feasible measures for collaboration with civil society that the public administration could implement:
- Establishing a department dedicated to civil society is urgently needed in some local communities, in order to institutionalize and maintain a regular dialog with CSOs.
- Introducing mandatory social projects that must be implemented together with civil society in order to create a culture of collaboration in the relevant field and beyond.
- Less bureaucracy within the public administration to expand the opportunities for local authorities to collaborate with CSOs, as well as to promote a better understanding among NGOs of the often convoluted and rigid bureaucratic procedures and how the administration works on a daily basis.
The role of the city managers and the impact they have on their communities vary from one administration to the next, both due to the tasks included in their management contracts and, as shown in the above-mentioned cases, to subjective circumstances, such as their personal drive or the support they enjoy within the public administration.
Despite the differences in city managers’ duties, they can play an important role in promoting good governance initiatives, including collaborations with CSOs, while fulfilling their mission of impartiality in public administration management.