My first consulting assignment was a study of the Oshkosh Police Department in 1983. Recruiting the first administrator in the then Town of Menasha came shortly thereafter. Since that time I have worked as the WCMA executive director, served as the mayor and as a council member in Oshkosh, and consulted with many municipalities throughout the State.
What have I learned? It has been quite an experience. Here are some observations.
- Municipal government in Wisconsin has become more professionalized. There are considerably more municipalities with administrators and professionally prepared department heads. At the same time, there are fewer individuals applying for municipal positions.
- Unless a municipality is large enough to have a professional human resource program, most municipalities should get help from a human resource consulting firm. Local governments rarely have the knowledge and the necessary time to properly recruit a municipal administrator or a department head. I have witnessed too many problems coming from homemade efforts.
- Advertising in the right places is critical for a good search. Appropriate sites focus on local government positions. General recruiting sites and newspapers will attract many applicants but rarely the applicants that are desired.
- Don’t be misled by consulting firms that claim to have a large stable of potential candidates. They have names and files, but the reality is that the decision to apply for a position is made by individuals at a particular time for a particular position. If they are not interested, no amount of cajoling is going to get them to apply. On the other hand, good consulting firms usually are aware of individuals who are looking for new positions and they maintain contact with these individuals. This network is important.
- In addition to advertising, vetting applicants is the most important task in municipal recruiting. It means checking multiple references and asking questions that will elicit essential characteristics of applicants, both positive and negative. Not thoroughly vetting applicants probably is the greatest weakness in municipal recruiting. Interestingly, the most revealing references usually are the superiors, peers, and subordinates of applicants and nobody should believe that a person on a reference list is only going to say good things. It helps as well to check with known sources off the applicant reference list.
- Different municipalities are going to have different ideas about the recruitment process and it is important for a consultant to be sensitive to these preferences as long as the integrity of the process is maintained.
- Recruiting is a two-way street. The municipality both has to select the candidate that it wants and to sell the community and position to the candidate. I have seen municipalities lose candidates because they did not take seriously the task of selling.
- Although our official client is the municipality, consultants need to work with the applicants throughout the process. Once a candidate has been selected, the consultant really works for both the municipality and the candidate to negotiate a fair employment agreement. I do not hesitate to go back to the council or board to advocate for a better offer or to tell candidates that what they want is not possible. Both parties should be satisfied.
- Finally, there are several consulting firms in Wisconsin that compete for business. I regard them as competitors, but not certainly not as foes. As a rule, consultants know each other, often from common settings such as the Wisconsin City/County Management Association. At times I have asked consultants with other firms about a particular applicant and I am happy to share information with them. We all are working for stronger local government in Wisconsin.