The job of a city manager, for the most part, goes unsung when talking about the scene of local government, but their impact is much greater than people tend to give them credit for. Their invisible hand guides steady progress in a city and makes sure that the day-to-day operations go as smoothly as possible. C. Seth Sumner is the City Manager of Athens, TN. He sits down with Abhijit Verekar to talk about the responsibilities of a city manager to the people of their city. Learn more about this important profession that makes sure the government is always doing its best to help the people.

RelatedStrategic Innovation in City Management

AV: My guest is Seth Sumner from the City of Athens. He’s the City Manager and I’m excited to have him on the show. Seth, welcome.

SS: Thank you for having me. It’s wonderful to be with you.

AV: Seth, it’s been an interesting time around the world and especially in Tennessee because we didn’t quite get hit as hard with the virus. At the same time, I want to thank the city management profession in general for taking care of us in this weird time. Seth, how did you end up becoming city manager? What’s your personal story?

SS: I purposefully set out to become a city manager over a decade ago. I wanted to be involved in the processes in making sure the best things are done within our government. Finding myself as my passions, knowledge, and the things that I wanted to accomplish for myself and my family and the people that I love mesh together in city management. 

Over a few years ago, I had been a city manager for years at that point and was able to come to my hometown here in Athens, Tennessee, and become the manager. The previous city manager had been here for nearly twenty years. It’s a good stable community and legally responsible.

My wife and I are both from East Tennessee and it was meant to be because I set out on this path applying for a job here at the City of Athens and because I didn’t get that job, I went back and got my Master’s degree to become a city manager. Here I was, 11 years after that journey began, right here, back in my hometown. It’s been interesting, but it is challenging. 

I know there are a lot of thoughts among city managers about never going back to your hometown. There are a lot of substantial challenges that I didn’t face in other communities because of the connection, but it’s been a great journey.

AV: Where were you before Athens?

SS: I was in the City of Savannah, Tennessee. I’ve got a thing for cities that are known in different states.

AV: Athens probably is the biggest name. I always say that the city manager’s job is cool. You guys handle so much. It’s a different challenge every day, but we’re going to focus on innovation and technology. What are your thoughts or definitions of innovation? What do you think it means to citizens?

SS: I’ve questioned whether local governments are or even could be innovative. Truthfully, to me, innovation has to deal with finding new ways and approaches to age-old problems. What I was familiar with the local government, and a lot can be said about the government in general, it’s slow-moving. 

We are deliberate on purpose, we are engaged in processes and making sure that there’s public input. These are slow things. 

In my experience, I know there are cities that are out there that are able to pivot and get this innovation thing down. I’ve not benefited from serving in those cities. I questioned this lately and it wasn’t until the pandemic. I’ve been able to change my thought process through this pandemic and rethink innovation. The average citizen is probably looking at, “Can I notify public works that there’s a pothole that needs to be filled and things of that nature?” It means much more from the administrative and executive standpoint because we’re always looking at city manager professionals to squeeze more juice out of the fruit. We’re trying to do more with less and you can’t always do that.

I’ll go back to what I was saying about the pandemic. The pandemic has allowed local governments to begin pivoting and doing things because we have to respond to something that no one has encountered. We’ve got tools so we’ve had to rethink these tools and how they are up now. We’re beginning to be innovative with some of our approaches. It doesn’t necessarily even have to be technology. 

It can be rethinking the budgetary process like we’ve done here in Athens. We’ve changed from looking at line item incrementalism moving to fully adopt priority-based budgeting. Our budgets are conversations and not looking at numbers. That’s innovative. That’s an idea that only came about a few years ago and only a few communities are using that. 

We get down into where our public works, folks, sanitation, or utilities. We’re always looking for better, quicker, and more cost-effective ways to build a new road or to put a sidewalk in. Things like that largely get taken for granted.

AV: We maintain this all the time. It’s not about the brand new computers or the blinking lights and the data center. Innovation starts at the vision and in the business process. At the same time, your email inbox probably gets hammered by all kinds of new technology that’s out there. How do you stay current? How do you cut through the noise? There’s so much noise out there in technological stuff that you can consider and buy.

SS: I’m a Millennial so I’m naturally geared that way. I grew up not happy with the home PC that we had in the house, so I found ways to start changing out the hardware and increasing its capabilities. I rearranged the filing system within Windows 95 on my computer. I was trying to establish it logically and I ended up crashing the whole thing. 

As a teenager, when I had time to fool with things like that, I played with technology and stayed on top of it and now it is difficult. It’s changing at such a fast pace. I’ve been able to hire the first-ever IT professional for the City of Athens. It’s hiring folks with that as their day job to keep me up.

I also attend the Tennessee City Management Association and the International City Management Association conferences. I am committed professionally to professional development and getting those credit hours, at least 40, every year. I have opportunities to go, see, and visit with vendors and companies and have conversations with folks like you about what are the new ways, what are things that are going on that we need to be aware of so we can look to increase our efficiencies. That’s what it is. I was trying to get to earlier with local government professionals. It’s always after more efficient and cost-effective processes.

What I’m working on here in the city of Athens is we’re manual with a lot of the things that we’re doing. We’re trying to break through that and automate as much as we can so our folks can be free to think and become innovative. You have to have that period of reflection and have availability to think about things, not just doing processes over and over. We get stuck in that monotony. 

I’ve learned lessons from visiting Silicon Valley, Microsoft headquarters, Google headquarters, and looking at their actual models and how they allow their staff some amount of free time to explore things. We’re not there yet, here in the City of Athens, but we’re working towards that. I want our best and brightest to be able to pursue their passions because that’s where you will find how innovation shows itself. It’s when folks get an idea and are able to pursue it. We don’t always have the freedom in local government.

AV: That is innovative. You need to have a real and innate passion for doing well at any level, not only city management. Hats off to you for giving your folks that freedom or you’re on the way to do that. What would you say is the foundation for a long-term viable IT strategy for a city or a city of your size?

SS: It starts with people. You have to have the people with the skills and the good cultural fit for your organization so other folks can buy into that. Folks connect and share experiences. As a leadership team, you’ve got to have the right people. The leading computer scientist in the nation is probably not a good fit for team Athens. 

It’s not about having the absolute best résumé. It’s about a good cultural fit and having the necessary skills. Skills are things that largely can be gained through education and training so to me, it starts with the culture and person. That’s the foundation and also having the resources to allow that person to excel in that position.

We’re truthfully making up for the lost time here in the City of Athens with having our first ever IT professional on our staff, but I can tell you the tremendous difference it’s made in over a year. I can’t talk highly enough about how fast we’ve been able to move and how we’re automating processes that would have taken me otherwise years to walk through politically and culturally. We’ve got that one person who’s a pastor as well, so it brings so much to the table to fit into our culture and folks are ready to make changes in technological advances and rethink things because we’ve got that right fit.

AV: That’s outstanding. It hammers the point that it isn’t about technology. It’s about how you make it work and how you make it fit your own organization and it all starts with a vision. You have a certain vision to make your city more efficient. How do you translate that vision to something that your IT person can understand and translate that into his world?

SS: I probably should write about this. I started the process of going through a reading. We did a reading program with my senior staff. I picked the book, one of my favorite books. It has changed the way that I look and approach things in my personal life and in my business life. We went with Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why,” and I was the only one in the room that had read that book, but we did a chapter a week and turned our staff meetings into a discussion of that chapter. I’ll let my folks go.

I was concerned that some of them are like, “This is too hokey. This is going to be a waste of time.” They dug in and I let them talk. We would talk for an hour. The hour that we had a lot for staff meetings and reports turned into discussing this book. I made notes and kept making notes week by week as we went through the book. After we finished it, I brought in the Municipal Technical Advisory Service to help host some team-building exercises geared toward some of the lessons that we took from the book.

Out of that and over the course of almost a year after that, we walked through several different exercises and built our “why”. What is Team Athens’ why? I let the senior staff develop that. We honed it into two sentences and we explained why we get up every morning and come to the city hall, public works, or the police station and we put it on the wall. It’s in a beautiful poster frame. 

Every campus and department has one of these hanging on the wall so it’s a constant reminder of our why. Why are we involved in local government? We could certainly be making more money elsewhere. We wouldn’t have some of the headaches that we have in other professions. We do it because of this reason. We also wrap that around something I built before I started as the City Manager of Athens and I created the Team Athens Agenda.

They’re broad goals that cover all of our service areas and I shop that out to the elected officials, to my staff, and the public. I asked for input and changes. There was not one person that said, “Change this one word. Change anything. We love it.” 

That’s what we do, what we’re going to do, and where we’re moving this community. We pair our “why” with our team agenda and everything else we do flows through those documents. It’s woven into our new evaluation and development program for our team members. It’s spoken about every time we talk about the budget. Everything that we do is through those two foundational documents that our people developed.

AV: That’s incredible. I’ve tried doing that same thing internally with another book. One of my favorite books is “Principles” by Ray Dalio. Not that I’ve learned new principles of life, but it’s been affirming to me that some of those things that I live by are good things to live by. I’m going to check out the book and try to make it a reading discussion thing with my team. 

Going back to what we were talking about. Great thoughts on the book review and how you’ve turned that into a performance metric. One of the keywords that are being thrown around these days is “Smart City”. How do you define a “Smart City”?

SS: I’ve tried to explore that and we’re trying to climb a mountain here with Team Athens in the way that we’re approaching our day-to-day work across all of our service areas. Overcoming this technological mountain is more appropriate that we’re doing things that a lot of cities have been doing for decades. It’s fun because we get to adopt things that are proven. We may not be getting the latest citizen engagement application, but we’re getting the one that’s been around for years and we’ve got the success stories from it and the cost has come down

There are a lot of products out there on the market. I know big telecoms are trying to sell kiosks and things of that nature but a smart city needs to be a city that has data infrastructure. It has to be a more analytical approach. Unfortunately, we know about humans, we’re not always logical about the decisions or the paths that we make. 

To me, if I can take the technology out of it, I love the engineering approach that we don’t build a sidewalk where we think a sidewalk should be or looks good on a map or on a piece of paper, we find the footpath and that’s where we put the sidewalk. Being smart about making those decisions is an easy one. That’s a visual cue. I can see that there’s a footpath so there needs to be a sidewalk there so that’s where I put one.

What we can’t see is how guests are coming into our city and they may not be able to get into our downtown easily or where people are going when they come into town. It’s being able to understand better what is happening in your city. 

By being smart, we also have to talk about interconnectivity. We want people to be connected in our community and feel a part of the community. That will include civic engagement and being connected by electronic devices now during the pandemic. It is being collected so we can make better decisions and more efficient decisions for our people and for our future.

AV: I love this because this is what I’ve built my career on. What I’m talking about does not have to do with the technology itself. You’re already smart from what I hear and a lot of cities have been smart for many years. It’s the keyword that’s been thrown around. Another one that is not so much an idle keyword, but it is a challenge facing cybersecurity and ransomware. What are your thoughts? How do you see this evolving as we progress through this?

SS: We’ve seen some terrible things happen to municipal governments where they have computer systems that get locked up by ransomware. What we’ve already been able to see from that experience is one, you might have liability coverage for that. We’ve seen a city pay for that. Our citizens aren’t happy about that. Even if it’s liability coverage and there’s nothing coming out of their pocket locally on that, they still don’t want you to pay that ransom. 

Knowing that there’s not a popular or a good option, not politically, and certainly who wants to give in to an unseen threat that’s locked your data. We have to be more vigilant in our approach to protecting our data. We’re going to the cloud. We’re looking at maybe performing an audit so we can get our IT infrastructure covered. It’s difficult and I don’t know the answer other than there’s some task force assigned on maybe even a state-level that’s able to keep an eye on these things that are hitting our local networks.

AV: It’s evolving and there is no answer. It’s not like you don’t have an answer. We’re up against armies of robots and countries that don’t like us.

SS: I was in Israel a couple of years ago and sat in and listened to the former Director of Mossad, Pardo, and that’s what he was saying. The future of attacks isn’t necessarily a nation being mad at another nation and bombing it. It could be a teenager sitting in mom’s basement with the right skill set that’s able to hold a local government at ransom. That’s hard for people to consider or swallow but that is what we’re up against. How do we overcome that? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for that.

AV: I don’t think anyone does. Tech vendors will tell you that their product is the answer, but in my experience, it comes down to education and setting up the right processes. There are things you can do to bolster your network. Network management has become the number one technical skill to have on your team, but outside of that, no matter how hard you make it for bad guys to get in, there will be someone inside your team that will click on something unknowingly and innocently that will take everything down. 

Education is critical and it’s inexpensive to start there. Tell people, “Here are the signs.” Another thing is it’s incredible how quickly people have adapted to new technology like video conferences. This is not new. This has been around for years but overnight, it’s become normal. People who would insist on in-person meetings only were suddenly okay with doing Zoom calls. What was your experience with your counsel, commission, and meetings with them?

SS: When I started this conversation, I talked about how I was into technology in my youth. As a city manager, I’m a Millennial that’s not on social media. I prefer face-to-face and I’ve caught flack from Boomers even if I wanted to meet and talk about whatever issue they had, “Let’s talk face-to-face.” That approach went out the window and we’re having to do this video conferencing. 

The most interesting thing that I think about is we do have all of these tools at our fingertips every day, but how do we adopt it and make the best use of it – and largely, we don’t. I was on a Zoom call with the president of the University of Tennessee and the president of Chattanooga State and they both said something that has remained in my thoughts ever since.

We have been combating, worrying about, talking about online education, and online college degrees. You can get your Master’s degree online. How is the University of Tennessee system going to deal with that in the future as that continues to grow? 

Both the presidents were saying, “We’ve talked about this for several years and we would likely still be talking about this for ten more years and arguing about it in the Faculty Senate.” We would never get there. This pandemic changed all that. It took the arguments. It’s a tech issue we had. The university had the technology and capability of doing what it knew it needed to do but they weren’t going to go there because of politics.

AV: Also, economics. Someone was telling me about how much money they make on student housing, for example. It changes everything so now that they’re forced into it, maybe it will proliferate.

SS: That’s right and now they’re doing it. How did they step back from that now? I don’t know if they do. You’ll still have folks that want that on-campus experience and we need that. There are folks that won’t be able to do that for economic reasons and other things. Now, there’s going to be some form of a better option and it happened in one week. 

Within a few days, something they’ve been talking about for years, and would still be talking about for years, they were able to pivot and go. I hate that people are sick now and that people are dying. I hate what this is doing to our businesses and our economy but as an administrator, this pandemic, I’m excited because we’re able to pivot, move, and respond to our people’s needs immediately. 

We’re not sitting, deliberating, and letting one person’s feelings get in the way of us making the best decision to protect our people. That feeds into the innovation. It’s here. It’s not that we’re inventing something. We’re taking advantage of what already exists.

AV: It proves my thinking. Change is mental and it can be overnight. You can decide to do something and do it overnight. The other great point is you’re not doing anything new. You’re not building a better way to make fire. You’re using technology that’s been around. What that does for governments especially is it gives them the ability to leapfrog things that have not worked out. If you’re into IT modernization, all of those resource-heavy technologies from the 1990s, you don’t have to deal with it because you weren’t that advanced back then.

SS: I’ve got a perfect example for you here. We have ten parks throughout the City of Athens. Most of those have bathrooms. We got into an issue where there used to be an employee that drove around and locked all the doors at night and went around and unlocked all the doors in the morning. 

They started transitioning that to the police department and the police are going around doing that same thing. I pulled both the department heads in and neither of them wanted to do it. I said, “Why are we paying a human to lock and unlock doors?” That’s how we have to do it. We’ve got the key but doors can lock by themselves. At the time that we told that door to lock, “Okay.”

We’re not having a human go physically lock it with the key. I don’t have to make keys and let it get out and change locks anymore. Your ID badge, which lets you get into City Hall, can unlock the door. We can tell all of our police officers and all of our parks personnel, “You’ve got access. If there’s a safety issue, you check it out. If we need to lock them down at some point for whatever reason, we can do that.” Let’s think about this. This technology has existed for decades. We have used it and you’re telling me you need a human to do that. We’ve got to break that thought process.

AV: We went to the moon in 1969. That’s amazing. You seem like you’re a person who likes to take on challenges. What’s been the biggest one so far?

SS: Let me mention the cultural and political environment that we’re living in now. Truthfully, the biggest challenge is maybe a lack of education and we’ve done it to ourselves. It’s a lack of education about what our form of government is, what it should be doing, and what it should not be doing. 

We have an electorate that isn’t engaged with their local community like they were at one time. They don’t know what’s happening next door anymore. They don’t know who lives next door anymore and that is a problem when we need all of our people working together to coop solutions for our community problems. That’s where we start talking about engagement.

I love the Kenneth Blanchard quote, “None of us are as smart as all of us.” I can’t think, learn, and do everything. It takes all of us working together, but we have to understand what those parameters are and we’ve lost a lot of that. 

We’re making waves and we’re trying to regain that through different uses and trying new techniques for local government engagement. If you go on the street now, you can grab anybody and ask them, “What’s going on in Washington, D.C.?” They’ll tell you and they’ll give you their opinion about it too, which is a thing that used not to happen.

AV: Do you think it’s the downside of over access to technology and information?

SS: Yeah. One of the odd things that strikes me too is we’re big on social media from the city standpoint, we’ve done a tremendous job at growing our followers and making sure that the citizens are engaged and we’re putting out good content. 

Almost daily, we have folks commenting on there, “I don’t have the internet,” or they’re asking a question that doesn’t have anything to do with the local government. We’re trying to be that resource but there’s a lack of it. It’s something that you can put a query in any search engine and you’ll have 100,000 hits in 0.5 seconds. 

There are some soft skills there that are lacking in some of the population but we, as local government, still have a response to them. We still have to engage and help those people as best we can. Sometimes technology stands in the way of that. 

I’m thinking about social media because it’s turned into a hate forum. They’re typing things and hitting “Enter” on things that will likely exist forever on a server somewhere, that they’re attached to, and would never say to your face. That’s a problem. That’s a cultural issue and we’ve created it. People have nasty thoughts. People can be ugly but it’s one thing for it to be in your head. It’s different for you to spray-paint on a wall and leave it there for eternity.

AV: It’s unnatural. It’s happened too quickly too for the human brain to evolve and catch up to it.

SS: “I can’t speak to you. We can’t have a conversation, but I can speak at you.” That’s what it has enabled. All we’re doing is surrounding ourselves with people that think exactly the same way that we do and we’re perpetuating our own thoughts whether they’re valid or not.

AV: This is why it’s important to have these conversations. It’s to put it out there that there are people that think differently than you but have the same values and principles. That doesn’t make you different.

SS: I want people to be friendly and love each other and let’s do the best we can while we’re here.

AV: I’m with you. I hate that people are sick and dying, but in many ways, it’s taken us back to the basics like staying at home, taking care of your family, looking out for your neighbor, and being there when someone needs you.

SS: The strangest thing is I’ve had citizens call or write and it’s this odd idea of what our government or responsibilities are. There’s no responsibility in a lot of this thought. It’s, “I’m free so I can do what I please.” I know you’re free because we are a nation of laws and we work together to take care of each other. 

Folks have missed that lesson of, “We have many freedoms. We’re thankful for that,” but there is a limit to those freedoms. I don’t think they’re getting where that limit is. Your freedoms are limited when they interfere with my freedoms.

AV: It’s not freedom for freedom’s sake. I’ve got a perspective. I grew up in India. It’s a free nation too. They’re the second-largest population. You would have thought that this COVID thing would have destroyed the nation, but the numbers are low. Do you know why? Because their freedom comes with the government telling them that it’s a curfew. There are videos on YouTube with the police taking batons to anyone that’s coming out of their homes. It’s a different freedom, but they have it.

SS: I was in Jaipur.

AV: I grew up in Goa so I’ve never been to Jaipur. Back to the topic, one of the things you mentioned is that you brought on an IT person. In a larger agency, it might be called the CIO or CTO and the role has changed. 

Traditionally, it used to be the guy that came and fixed your printer when it was broken. Now, it’s a senior management level position because IT is everywhere. Anything you do in a city government involves technology to some extent, even locking bathrooms. What do you think the role of a CIO or CTO is going to be in the next few years?

SS: I would love to see that. We’re growing that department of one now by one other person and rolling GIS into that. There are going to be folks like us that are catching up decades later in creating these positions and naturally they will grow because the use of technology will always grow. That’s what we do from humans carving the first wheel or finding out how to start our own fire. It gets more rapid and everything that we do is to make our tasks simpler. 

That CIO role will need to evolve into a leadership position. Truthfully, I would look at that in not too many years where a lot of the internal leadership for municipalities comes from the finance department. The things that people want to know about but are typically difficult to understand for people that don’t practice that level of finance, budgeting, accountability, segregation of duties, and auditing. It’s something that folks know is important. 

We see the CIO position transitioning into that de facto internal leadership and knowing that this is important. This is the person that is making sure that our online presence and records are safe, secure, and accountable to the public. There are a lot of internal and maybe even informal leadership skills and capabilities that we’re going to be seeing from those positions a little bit down the road.

AV: Those are some excellent thoughts. It was Eric Stuckey who I talked to from Franklin. He said that he sees CIOs taking on city manager roles in the next years or so because it’s interwoven. That’s fascinating and a little scary because I know a lot of CIOs. Seth, what keeps you going? What drives you? I know you have a passion for public service. What wakes you up in the morning ready to go?

SS: I do. My personality type is painful because I’m constantly pushing and have to go and change. I’m the guy that has the scuba gear because I learned how to scuba dive and I did it a couple of times. I’ve got the golf clubs because I learned to play golf. I did that a couple of times. I have to be a part of everything. I’ve got to do everything and I want to experience it all. 

At the core of that is my drive to help people to make a better life. Truthfully, my passion and that drive, I’ve had my entire life and it now has a different meaning. I’m the father of twins and it is a beautiful thing that the world is all new through their eyes as they’re growing up and we’re getting to experience these things together.

Two things, I live by the quote, and it’s painful sometimes, but it is me. Robert Morrison stated, “To do what ought to be done, but what would not have been done unless I did it, I thought to be my duty.” I naturally pick up a lot of things. If I find something, somebody got hurt, and something’s not right, this is not the best it could be. I pick up things that maybe sometimes I shouldn’t and I run and I’m going to fix it and I’m going to help. 

My passion for that is so I can leave this world in a better place for my children. I share a lot of those frustrations that we hear from Millennials. We’re happy. We love to be here, but there are a lot of things that could be much better. I’m not happy about inheriting previous generations trillions of dollars of federal debt that there’s no way to pay off. There’s no willingness to pay off and I’m okay with that as a tool, but it’s not been used as an appropriate tool. It’s crippling. There are better ways of creating and reshaping this world so my children don’t look back at me and my generation and ask, “Why did you do this to us?”

AV: I’m with you. I have a daughter and it’s like being a child again with her but also it’s scary. It’s a whole other perspective to life. Seth, I know we have only so much time, but I’d love to continue this at some other time. Thank you for joining us. Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to talk about?

SS: I could talk all day. I’m a passionate person who enjoys this thing. I appreciate the opportunity to be with you on this show. If I can be of service to you or anybody else who might be reading, I’m always available and willing to help.

AV: Thank you, Seth, and likewise. If you need anything, you know how to reach me.

SS: Yes, sir.

AV: I’ll talk to you soon, Seth. Thank you.

About C. Seth Sumner

Seth Sumner began service as the City Manager of his hometown, Athens, TN, in 2017. He previously served as Assistant City Manager of Savannah, TN, and began his career as the City Manager of Clifton, TN,  after graduating with his Master of Public Administration (MPA) from the University of Tennessee in 2009. 

Mr. Sumner is a certified economic developer (TCEcD), certified municipal finance officer (CMFO), is an International City Management Association Credentialed Manager (ICMA-CM), and a graduate of the University of Virginia’s Senior Executive Institute (UVA-SEI). Seth is an inspired, resourceful, modern public manager mindful of the people’s resources and capacities, employing a corporate-minded resolve to local government management. 

Seth enjoys learning, traveling, tinkering, seeking out great food, and outdoor sporting. Most importantly, he is the proud husband to Katie and father to twins Georgia and Carl Mason, who joins their first child, a rescued Black and Tan Coonhound named Tensy. Seth sums up his work ethic with a Robert Morrison quote, “To do what ought to be done but what would not have been done unless I did it, I thought to be my duty.”

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