Raleigh city manager Russell Allen, in his first interview since the Raleigh City Council decided to end his contract, spoke with the Record about what he’s learned serving as the head of city government and what’s made Raleigh a success.
Allen’s last day will be at the end of June. He declined to speak about the reasons for his firing or the current Council. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.
Raleigh Public Record: What does the city manager do?
Allen: A lot of people don’t know what the city manager does, and I try to describe it as, it’s sort like the CEO of a company. It’s just the city’s CEO of a public service business. I try to describe it in terms of, we have all these service mechanisms that we provide and so I’m the chief executive of everything it takes to make that happen effectively and efficiently. Whether it’s police or fire or parks and recreation or all the internal things of a business for human resources and finance and planning and all of those services the city delivers. Somebody’s got to be the CEO and have consideration of the leadership, of the management, of the hiring, the staffing, the financing, budgeting, and that’s my job. I’m always the one that should be held accountable, ultimately, for whether you get good service. Since we don’t make anything here at the city with four walls and get to check it out the back door, we’re only as good as what everybody does every day. And that’s my job, to help create that culture of service and of an efficient business. That is a big part of my role, managing and doing the work of a CEO.
Beyond that, of course I have the unique role of working with a board of directors that’s elected. They are the policy makers; they are the legislative body. And I think for a council-manager form of government, that works best when you have a trusting partnership. They’re going to ultimately have policy direction that they want to adopt and approve or consider, and the manager’s role, along with the staff, is to try to help them to craft that in a way that they feel good about. You want to make sure, as they set goals and priorities as an elected body group, that we are working to fulfill those goals and priorities. That’s a part of my job.
It’s part of my job to understand what individual council members’ concerns are and help them in a way that’s helpful to each of them individually along with their collective direction. Constituent services is a good example of that. If somebody’s elected from a district they’re going to feel like they really want to provide great constituent service and responsiveness to someone in their district. It’s my job to help with that.
I’m in many cases the face of the city to other partners. Whether it’s the county government, or schools, or other cities in the region, whether it’s nonprofits that may be partners with the city doing affordable housing or special human service delivery in the city, or whether it’s business partners like the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance or the Chamber of Commerce, or whether it’s bigger businesses like the university or the hospitals or others. There are lots of connections and I feel like it’s my job to make sure on behalf of the city that those are successful relationships or partnerships.
Extra: Listen to Allen’s Response to Our Final Question
In five minutes or less, that’s what I feel my role is. As you can imagine, our business is about $650 million a year — that’s the size of our budget — and about 3,500 full-time employees. A lot of it’s internal, a lot of it is making sure that I’m communicating with department directors, my management team, with employees, that I’m listening and hearing what their needs are and helping them to be successful. That really is the way I see my role in the city. I have to know what they need, I have to help them get the resources that they need in order for them to be successful. Many of our employees touch our citizens far more every day than I ever would, even though I take every call that comes in and answer every email. I assure you that if our solid waste services worker is not doing his or her job that day, that’s not going to be a good day for the city. Everybody expects their garbage to be collected.
Record: What have you learned doing this job for the past 12 years?
Allen: I’d go back [farther]. My learning curve has been since I’ve been doing city public service for about 30 years. I’ve learned all along the way about what to do. I had my first managerial position in public service when I was about 25 and was a department director and had about 50 employees and a couple million dollar budget and that was a really good learning experience for me. Trying to be accessible and listen to people. My strategies have evolved over the years.
I tell the Neighborhood College another thing is I used to think that my job is to make sure everyone got the same level of service, and that’s really a flawed model because not every part of the community needs the same level of service. There are many parts of the community that need more public safety or they may have lesser infrastructure and they need a different level of service from the city, or they may have more poor housing stock or nuisance violations. They need a more concentrated level of service than just the same thing. That’s evolved over the years. It helped instruct my belief in neighborhood empowerment and partnering with citizens to understand what their needs are to see if we can leverage what they have. That’s been a good lesson for me over the years.
I have personally always been one who had to pay attention to the details of the business. Not that I’m a micromanager, but I’ve always felt like it was important for the manager to understand those details of the business. That was good for me and my personality, but it also helped me to help department directors be successful. I always felt it was important for me, I learned early, to stay in touch with employees, to find ways to help them feel comfortable. I always have M&Ms in the lobby, because the manager’s office can be intimidating. But if you have a little treat or something that people feel like they can just drop in, makes people feel more comfortable. So I buy M&Ms and leave them in the office. I started doing that about 20 years ago and it was successful and still is. I have a lot of customers.
For me, trying to be strategic and taking advantage of opportunities, whether they’re partnership opportunities, whether they’re financial, whether they’re political opportunities, trying to help to be able to articulate that. I’ve found over the years that it is important. I got out of the public sector once and was in the private sector and went in with a business partner and ran a small company. He was an English major and of course I have an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and have a [Master’s of Public Administration]. When I was in business, I was probably in my early 30s, we agreed that we would tell each other one thing once a month that nobody else would tell you.
[pullquote]You can’t lose the trust and respect of people you work with, nor can you lose it of those that you serve.[/pullquote]
One of the things he said to me once, he said, “You’re an engineer and you think like an engineer and you think that if you can present the facts then everybody can just go along with the facts. If you show it’s right, everybody’s just going to say ‘OK you’re right, that’s the facts.’ And he said to me, “It’s not enough to be right; you have to be convincing.” And that’s something that has stuck with me. Convincing doesn’t mean you have to just sell, it means you have to make things compelling to people, you have to paint a picture, you have to use any tools that you have to help people understand why something is important. That’s something that I have carried with me in my management role that I felt is always important and tried to make sure that if I was trying to articulate something that I did a good job of it, that I was thorough, that I tried to think about it from different angles. In this environment, where you have lots of people’s interest, maybe fragments of information, that’s even more important in my business.
The people part of the business has always been important to me. I’ve learned over the years, I don’t ever assume anything about anybody. We all have that tendency, particularly citizens, when you see somebody and you paint this picture of what they’re going to be like or you may have one phone conversation with them or they may come into the office and you think, “Well, I’ve got this person pegged. They’re just a complainer; they’re going to be a chronic complainer or something.” I’ve seen it enough times over the years; I do not take that position. Everybody starts fresh with me. Everybody has something to contribute in a way that probably will astound you if you let them. I’ve seen that repeated over and over again. It’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed about the job, whether it’s somebody that’s an employee or a citizen or whoever it may be, you can’t assume things about people.
Record: How have you seen new technology change government?
Allen: The access to information of course is phenomenal that citizens have that you used to just not have. The ability to transmit information as an internal organization has just changed so dramatically. I remember the first time I ever used a fax machine and just how phenomenal that was to be able to transact business in a matter of seconds rather than by mail and how much more efficient that was. And it was a game changer. The transition to email and other technologies that we have, it is just phenomenal. It is so unbelievably efficient and it makes information accessible and you can do so much more. There are just so many positive things. I worry that you use a little bit of the personal connection with all of it, but gosh, the positives associated with it are really just phenomenal.
The whole social media and how people are interacting. You’ve seen that over the years and generational impacts that people have and how people grow up with different tools and different skills. It’s instant information and it’s higher expectations for good information and communication. There are so many more positive opportunities I see because of new technology.
Record: Tell me about openness and accessibility in city government.
Allen: City government is, in my view, the most accessible form of government. It’s the level where you should absolutely count on your city to meet your basic needs, your family needs, your individual needs. And you need to count on it and you can hold them accountable for it. That’s the level of government I love. I like cities and because of that, you’re on the front lines and you can make things happen and you can make things positive happen from your interactions, no matter where you are in the city you can make a difference with what you do. I really like that part of the work.
You never can lose that trust. In my view you’ve got to always be open, you’ve got to be accessible. You’ve got to be responsive. Personally, for me, that’s why I answer every email that anybody sends me, and I answer it usually on the day I get it. And I return every phone call that I get. It’s time consuming, but it’s important. I hope that then transmits through the organization so that we’re seen as a more transparent and open and accessible and responsive organization. For the closest level of government, that’s important. You wouldn’t want to feel that your closest level of government is distant or you can’t get good information from them. I think there is a higher expectation in that arena and I think it’s important and I think it’s valuable. I think we do a really good job of it here at the city. We take that part of it very seriously. If you ever do something that hides something or isn’t done properly or ethically or morally, then you’re not going to be successful as a city. You’re going to lose the trust and you just can’t do that. You can’t lose the trust and respect of people you work with, nor can you lose it of those that you serve.
Record: How do you communicate those ethics down to the thousands of people working for the city on the front lines?
Allen: From my perspective, I have to try to live them and show examples. I try to do that as best I can. Again, from my perspective, I try to reach out and make myself available to employees in as many different forms as you can. We’ve invested a lot in organizational development, having programs on leadership, helping departments, making that important in our training and our investment in employees. Hopefully hiring the right people that bring those traits to the table and making that important in your hiring decisions. Promoting people that have those traits. It’s important to build a culture. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and you’re never perfect. You’re always struggling to be doing better. Those are some of the ways. Supporting employees when they do those things right. Thanking them, I think, is a very important part of my role. Help them be successful and then thank them when they are successful.
Record: Do you have any other thoughts you want to share?
Extra: Listen to Allen’s response.
Allen: I feel like Raleigh is an exceptional community. It’s exceptional for lots of reasons. I think we have a great city government. Obviously I’m biased in that regard. We have a great city government because we have terrific employees. When you look around and you see the reasons we’re successful, it’s because citizens are engaged and care about the community. There really are lots of them that do. That really is the basis of a successful community. As an example, again, in the Neighborhood College, I read a portion of the oath of the Athenian City State, we’re all sworn to leave our community better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us. There really are a lot of people in this community that believe that and they get invested in it and they contribute, and I think that’s good.
[pullquote]I read a portion of the oath of the Athenian City State, we’re all sworn to leave our community better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us. There really are a lot of people in this community that believe that and they get invested in it and they contribute, and I think that’s good.[/pullquote]
When you look around, there’s a lot of things the city does on its own. But there are many many things that we do in a partnership. We have some very strong partners here in the community. Just mention a few, Wake County has been an extraordinary partner and has been for a long time, the Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, N.C. State University, the hospitals here, major institutions and businesses. There’s hardly a thing that’s been done that’s been great for our community that we haven’t reached out and built a strong partnership. That’s not easy to do, either.
From a strictly business perspective, just from looking at the city, I always talk about three foundations of a really successful city. You have to do all three to be a really successful high quality city. Number one, make sure you pay attention to basic services, that people expect tat their home and their community is going to be safe. If you don‘t pay attention to public safety, you’re going to be in trouble. People expect their utilities to be there. You need to have good water and reliable water and you need to flush and make sure it’s taken care of. It needs to be affordable. You need to be sure the streets are in good shape. That the garbage gets collected. These are things they can’t do for themselves. They need to get at a good value, it’s important to them, their city needs to do that well. Focus on basic services.
The second is to be financially strong. No business can be successful unless it’s really financially strong. In our case, we are. You know, AAA [bond rating], it has the best financial footing. We’re conservative in our finances and budget practices, we have strategic reserves. We’re able to hang in there when there are tough times. We’re able to invest when there are strategic opportunities, so we really have good finances.
The third is what really makes a community unique, and if you think about when you travel, what is it that you remember about a community? Generally, you remember the history, maybe its historic buildings that you see, you remember the parks, you remember the museums, the public art. You remember if the air was clean, if you had access to nature, things that are not basic services but are important components that make a community and its quality of life unique. You sort of look around Raleigh and think about what are those things that we built here. I think Raleigh has those examples: great basic services, very strong finances, and we’ve invested in quality of life. Whether it’s public art or culture or performing arts or whatever, just looks across the spectrum. Successful parks bond issues, the people in this community have made that important and I think that’s why we have a first class, quality community, because we put all those things together.