Government Chief Executives & Legislators

Nature of the Work | Working Conditions | Employment | Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement | Job Outlook | Earnings | Related Occupations | Sources of Additional Information

Significant Points
  • Over 9 out of 10 government chief executives and legislators work in local government.
  • Most government chief executives and legislators are elected; local government managers are appointed.
  • Few long-term career opportunities are available.
  • There is less competition for executive and legislative jobs in small communities that offer part-time positions with little or no compensation or staff support.
Nature of the Work [About this section] Index

Chief executives and legislators at the Federal, State, and local levels direct government activities and pass laws that affect us daily. These officials consist of the President and Vice President of the United States, members of Congress, State governors and lieutenant governors, members of the State legislators, county chief executives and commissioners, city, town and township council members, mayors, and city, county, town, and township managers. (Many small communities have top government officials who are volunteers and receive no salary. These individuals are not included in the employment or salary numbers provided in this Handbook statement.)

Most chief executives are elected by their constituents, but many managers are hired by a local government executive, council, or commission, to whom they are directly responsible. These officials formulate and establish government policy and develop Federal, State, or local laws and regulations. (General administrators who do not have overall responsibility for the government entity are discussed in the Handbook statement on general managers and top executives.)

Government chief executives, like their counterparts in the private sector, have overall responsibility for the performance of their organizations. Working with legislators, they set goals and organize programs to attain them. These executives also appoint department heads, who oversee the civil servants who carry out programs enacted by legislative bodies. As in the private sector, government chief executives oversee budgets and insure that resources are used properly and programs are carried out as planned.

Chief executives carry out a number of other important functions, such as meeting with legislators and constituents to determine the level of support for proposed programs. In addition, they often nominate citizens to boards and commissions, encourage business investment, and promote economic development in their communities. To do all of these varied tasks effectively, chief executives of large governments rely on a staff of highly skilled aides and assistants to research issues that concern the public. Executives that control small governmental bodies, however, often do this work by themselves.

Legislators are elected officials who enact or amend laws. They include U.S. Senators and Representatives, State senators and representatives, and county, city, and town commissioners and council members. Legislators introduce, examine, and vote on bills to pass official legislation. In preparing such legislation, they study staff reports and hear testimony from constituents, representatives of interest groups, board and commission members, and others with an interest in the issue under consideration. They usually must approve budgets and the appointments of nominees for leadership posts who are submitted by the chief executive. In some bodies, the legislative council appoints the city, town, or county manager.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

The working conditions of chief executives and legislators vary with the size and budget of the governmental unit. Time spent at work ranges from a few hours a week for some local leaders to stressful weeks of 60 or more hours for members of the U.S. Congress. Similarly, some jobs require only occasional out-of-town travel, while others involve long periods away from home, such as when attending sessions of the legislature.

U.S. Senators and Representatives, governors and lieutenant governors, and chief executives and legislators in municipalities work full time, year-round, as do most county and city managers. Many State legislators work full time on government business while the legislature is in session (usually for 2 to 6 months a year or every other year) and work only part time when the legislature is not in session. Some local elected officials work a schedule that is officially designated as part time, but actually is the equivalent of a full-time schedule when unpaid duties are taken into account. In addition to their regular schedules, most chief executives are on call to handle emergencies.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Chief executives and legislators held about 80,000 jobs in 1998. About 9 out of 10 worked in local government. Chief executives and legislators in the Federal Government consist of the 100 Senators, 435 Representatives, and the President and Vice President. State governors, lieutenant governors, legislators, chief executives, professional managers, and council and commission members of local governments make up the remainder.

Government chief executives and legislators who do not hold full-time, year-round positions often continue to work in the occupation they held before being elected.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement [About this section]   Index

Apart from meeting minimum age, residency, and citizenship requirements, candidates for public office have no established training or qualifications. Candidates come from a wide variety of occupations, but many do have some political experience as staffers or members of government bureaus, boards, or commissions. Successful candidates usually become well-known through their political campaigns and some have built voter name recognition through their work with community religious, fraternal, or social organizations.

Increasingly, candidates target information to voters through advertising paid for by their respective campaigns, so fund raising skills are essential for candidates. Management-level work experience and public service help develop the fund raising, budgeting, public speaking, and problem solving skills that are needed to run an effective political campaign. Candidates must make decisions quickly, sometimes on the basis of limited or contradictory information. They should also be able to inspire and motivate their constituents and staff. Additionally, they must know how to reach compromises and satisfy conflicting demands of constituents. National, State, and some local campaigns require massive amounts of energy and stamina, traits vital to successful candidates.

Virtually all town, city, and county managers have at least a bachelor’s degree, and the majority hold a master’s degree. A master’s degree in public administration is recommended, including courses in public financial management and legal issues in public administration. Working in management support positions in government is a prime source of the experience and personal contacts required to eventually secure a manager position. For example, applicants often gain experience as management analysts or assistants in government departments working for committees, councils, or chief executives. In this capacity, they learn about planning, budgeting, civil engineering, and other aspects of running a government. With sufficient experience, they may be hired to manage a small government.

Generally, a town, city, or county manager is first hired by a smaller community. Advancement often takes the form of securing positions with progressively larger towns, cities, or counties. A broad knowledge of local issues, combined with communication skills and the ability to compromise, are essential for advancement in this field.

Advancement opportunities for elected officials are not clearly defined. Because elected positions normally require a period of residency and local public support is critical, officials usually advance to other offices only in the jurisdictions where they live. For example, council members may run for mayor or for a position in the State government, and State legislators may run for governor or for Congress. Many officials are not politically ambitious, however, and do not seek advancement. Others lose their bids for reelection or voluntarily leave the occupation. A lifetime career as a government chief executive or legislator is rare.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Overall, little or no change in employment is expected among government chief executives and legislators through 2008. Few new governments at any level are likely to form, and the number of chief executives and legislators in existing governments rarely changes. However, some increase will occur at the local level as counties, cities, and towns take on professional managers or move from volunteer to paid, career executives to deal with population growth, Federal regulations, and long-range planning.

Elections give newcomers the chance to unseat incumbents or to fill vacated positions. The level of competition in elections varies from place to place. There tends to be less competition in small communities that offer part-time positions with low or no salaries and little or no staff compared to large municipalities with prestigious full-time positions offering high salaries, staff, and greater exposure.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median annual earnings of government chief executives and legislators were $19,130 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $12,090 and $47,470. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $11,460, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $81,230.

Earnings of public administrators vary widely, depending on the size of the governmental unit and on whether the job is part time, full time and year round, or full time for only a few months a year. Salaries range from little or nothing for a small town council member to $200,000 a year for the President of the United States.

The International City/County Management Association reports the average annual salary of chief elected city officials was about $12,900, and the average salary for city managers was $70,500 in 1997. According to the International Personnel Management association, city managers earned an average of $101,800 and county managers $95,500 in 1999. Also, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that the salary for legislators in the 40 States that paid an annual salary and the District of Columbia ranged from $3,700 in South Dakota on even years to $75,600 in California and $80,600 in the District of Columbia. In 8 States, legislators received a daily salary plus an additional allowance for living expenses while legislatures were in session. New Hampshire paid no expenses and $200 per 2-year term, while New Mexico paid no salary at all but did pay a daily expense allowance.

The Council of State Governments reports in their Book of the States, 1998-99 that gubernatorial annual salaries ranged from a low of $60,000 in Arkansas to a high of $130,000 in New York. In addition to a salary, most governors received benefits such as transportation and an official residence. The governor of Florida has the largest staff with 264 while the governor of Wyoming has the smallest with 14.

In 1999, U.S. Senators and Representatives earned $136,700, the Senate and House Majority and Minority leaders earned $151,800, and the Vice President was paid $175,400.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Related occupations include managerial positions that require a broad range of skills and administrative expertise, such as corporate chief executives and board members, as well as high ranking officers in the military.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

Information on appointed officials in local government can be obtained from:

  • The Council of State Governments, P.O. Box 11910, Iron Works Pike, Lexington, KY 40578-1910. Internet: http://www.statesnews.org
  • International City Management Association (ICMA), 777 North Capital NE., Suite 500, Washington, DC 20002. Internet: http://www.icma.org
  • National Association of Counties, 440 First St. NW., Suite 800, Washington, DC 20001. Internet: http://www.naco.org
  • National League of Cities, 1301 Pennsylvania Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20004. Internet: http://www.nlc.org

An industry employing government chief executives and legislators that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: State and local government, except education and health services

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