University of Kansas
Spring 2010


County Courthouse Case Studies in Values, Politics and Professionalism in Local Government also the basis for presentations on Council-Manager Relations

The purpose of this module is to give both professional staff and elected officials a better understanding of each other's perspective. I have provided background information about politics based on my own experiences over the past six years as a city council member. With this background in mind, I have written two cases which I have embellished to illustrate points about values, politics, and professionalism and council-manager relations.

An article that summarizes this work is available in manuscript form on-line.

I have divided this module into four parts: an Introduction, a section on Understanding Politics which provides the background material for the cases, a Recreation Center Case , a privatization case, and a Traffic Signal Case, and a Chart that summarizes the differences between politics and administration and shows the chief administrator's role in the middle of the two different perspectives.

I have used this material in many of the presentations I have made to both elected officials and professional staff nationwide. I hope you find it useful.

Comments or questions:


As a teacher of public administration since 1976, I had become convinced of the preeminent role of administrative staff in governance, whether focusing on local, state or the federal government. From 1991 to 1999, I served on the city council in Lawrence, Kansas, and with the council electing its own mayor, I filled that role in 1993 and again in 1996, following my reelection. I was selected as elected official of the year in the late 1990s by the Kansas Parks and Recreation Association for my work facilitating a city/county/school district sales tax initiative that included funding of the city's parks and recreation master plan.

My view of the relationship between council and staff has changed significantly since 1991. In short, good administration cannot overcome bad politics, and good politics cannot compensate for bad administration. Effective governance requires both-the collective capacity to forge well-reasoned, informed, and responsive public policy, and the ability to carry out public policy in ways that add value to the daily lives of citizens.

The brief cases I am presenting here focus on the relationship between elected officials and professional staff. Before introducing the cases, I will sketch the portrait of politics I have become familiar with to help local government professionals and students understand how politicians think. For elected officials, my goal is to help them understand how conflicting political values are at the root of governance challenges. I am convinced that the difference between politics and administration is found less in contrasting what politicians and professional staff do and more in the different ways they think-in what I have called "constellations of logic." The "chart" depicts the differences-- with the essence captured in the notion that politics is about passion, dreams, and stories, and administration is about data plans and reports. The challenge of effective governance is not separating these worlds but connecting them. In short, the goal is to connect what is poltiically acceptable and administratively feasible, and a key role of top level administrative staff is facilitating that connection.

John Nalbandian

University of Kansas

Spring 2010



Go to John's Home Page