There were six New Zealanders at this year’s ICMA Annual Conference - President Sanchia Jacobs and myself, International Exchange Programme Manager (IMEP) Jason Marris, Emerging Leaders of the Year Natasha Stubbing and Shyamal Ram, and ICMA member Cameron McIntosh. Taking place in Columbus, Ohio from 16-19 September 2022, the Conference was smaller than previous ones I have attended, but still had the buzz that 4,000 people coming together in one place for a few days to discuss their work and their communities with passion and commitment can generate.

The ICMA (International City/County Management Association) has 39 international Affiliates, including Taituarā. Under its Global Engagement strategy there are a variety of ways in which we all interact, including the IMEP, the sharing of educational resources and in some cases the provision of technical training and advice. 

There is an International Committee, appointed by the ICMA Executive Board which provides guidance and advice to the staff on this area of work. Several members of the committee are former USA IMEP ‘returnees’ who spoke about their fabulous exchanges in New Zealand.

Recent Ukrainian experiences of local government

Probably the most sobering experience was at the International Committee and Affiliates meeting when two strong mayors (a strong mayor is elected and performs the roles of mayor and chief executive) from Ukraine talked about their last six months. One had 'lost his job' in March when Russian troops moved into his town; the other is located further to the west and slightly less affected by the invasion. 

They told us there are approximately 750 municipalities in Ukraine, with an intention to establish a further 100. Over the last six months there has been a strengthened partnership between Ukrainian cities, specifically focussing on the maintenance, where possible, of community and resident services, and the personal resilience and development of staff. 

Financial management skills had been particularly tested due to an overall 77 per cent decrease in GDP. They reported that they were now getting local taxes to fund services as a counter to the revenue losses. For example, their school budgets are based on class sizes of 25 students per class, but those levels are no longer applicable in many parts of the country.

Supporting enormous influxes of refugees

Representatives from Denmark, Romania and the Czech Republic also spoke of how they are supporting Ukrainian refugees. 

In Denmark, where local government is responsible for housing and education, all refugees have been housed and work found for people who want to work – the refugees are mainly women and children. The Danish government has suggested not integrating the refugees into Danish life as there is an expectation they will return to Ukraine when the war ends. In the meantime, temporary schools have been established along with mental health services. However, many Danes feel that there should be more integration – a point attested to by an upswing in Danes learning to speak Ukrainian.

In Romania, language is proving to be the biggest issue in assisting Ukrainian refugees. Romanian is a Romance language (i.e. it evolved from Latin) whereas Ukrainian is a Slavic language, thus they are very different in terms of vocabulary and grammar. Interpreters, moreover, are very hard to find.

In the Czech Republic, a country of approximately 10 million people, more than one million Ukrainian refugees have entered, putting extreme pressure on all systems. Because most of the refugees are women and younger children, local government effort has gone into finding housing and then to schooling. As in Denmark, the question of integration has also arisen. The Czechs said this situation had necessitated the development of new types of skills for local government staff.

Other matters that were raised 

  • Belgium – Current discussions about new legislation that would end the 'hired for life' protection of current employment frameworks. While chief executives like the idea of being able to move non-performing staff on, they recognise that they too could be moved on.
  • Czech Republic – Aiming to be a fully digitised country within the next three years.
  • Denmark – A new law requiring all governments (central and local) to communicate digitally with citizens. This is challenging for older managers in particular.
  • Romania – Significant workforce pressures resulting in the recruitment of professionals from Asian countries. They are also very worried about big increases in energy prices, especially over the winter.
  • South Africa – Aging facilities and infrastructure across the country have been neglected for some time. This is leading to new funding models for local government. Also in need of attention are supply chain management, workforce management, and data management.
  • United Kingdom – There is huge financial pressure in the UK, with some councils ‘bankrupt’. On top of this the workforce crisis includes people refusing to return to work, empty buildings being sold, and experienced leaders leaving the sector. This combined pressure on politicians and professionals alike has resulted in SOLACE developing a new ethics framework.

The daily keynote speakers again presented inspiring leadership stories

Soledad O’Brien: An American broadcast journalist and executive producer who has hosted Matter of Fact with Soledad O'Brien, a nationally syndicated weekly talk show produced by Hearst Television since 2016. She is chairperson of Starfish Media Group, a multiplatform media production company and distributor that she founded in 2013. She is also a member of the Peabody Awards board of directors, which is presented by the University of Georgia's Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She has previously been an anchor for CNN and Al Jazeera.

Dede Halfhill: Described by Dr Brené Brown as one of her “leadership heroes and a total badass,” this U.S. Air Force retired Colonel draws from 25 years of command experience and as a senior advisor to the military’s highest-ranking officials to provide a real-world perspective on the power of embracing humanness and vulnerability in leadership. She has a candid approach to leadership, and lives by the leadership lessons she preaches, by becoming a certified 'Dare to Lead' facilitator in 2019, as well as a Senior Executive Coach certified through Georgetown University’s Executive Leadership Coaching Program.

Lee Jourdan: Chevron’s former Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, presented a four-step framework of solutions to assist in moving organisations forward, helping them to recognise the competitive advantage of workplace diversity. He said it is not enough these days to just do the right thing – it must be the smart thing too.

Derreck Kayongo: A Ugandan refugee who escaped to the USA where he is now a successful entrepreneur and human rights motivator. He is best known for the Global Soap Project, in which he recycled 800 million bars of wasted hotel soap annually into usable soap for African families. The project is now part of Clean the World, which has contributed to a 60 per cent reduction in the death rate of children under the age of five due to hygiene-related illnesses.

Next year’s ICMA Conference will take place in Austin, Texas from 1-4 October 2023.