Lonely at the Top: An Examination of the Changing Dynamics for Chief Administrative Officers in Alberta Municipalities


  • Kate Graham
  • Jesse Helmer




This paper explores administrative viability in Alberta’s municipalities by investigating a critical ingredient in municipalities’ ability to deliver local public services: the chief administrative officer (CAO). Specifically, this paper aims to identify the patterns that are emerging with respect to the role and tenure of municipal CAOs in Alberta, and the implications for Alberta’s municipalities. Using a mixed-methods approach that blends qualitative and quantitative analysis, this paper presents several important findings:

● The average tenure of a CAO in Alberta is now well under the length of one term of council. CAO tenure is generally shorter in smaller municipalities. More concerningly, the average length of tenure has been in a steady state of decline for the past two decades.

● The number of CAO transitions, including acting and interim roles, has been increasing in all types of municipalities – in some types of municipalities, double or triple the rate of CAO transitions in earlier time periods. The days of long-serving CAOs outside of cities appear to be waning, as the length of one council term becomes a harder cap on CAO tenure in those communities.

● The role of CAO involves important on-the-job learning. No two municipalities are the same; even two terms of council within the same municipality can have quite different dynamics. Shorter CAO tenures and higher rates of turnover mean more costly transitions – not just in dollars and organizational disruption, but in the time to reach peak performance.

● Current and past CAOs clearly identify the increasingly tenuous political dynamics as a leading driver in role dissatisfaction and reasons for decisions to join or depart from a municipality. There seems to be consensus that the political dynamics are getting worse, not better. Among many other insights about the contemporary experiences of CAOs, this emerged as the central theme.


The chief argument of this paper is that the success and stability of CAOs is a leading indicator of administrative viability. Currently, measures of this indicator are ringing alarm bells. Efforts towards strengthening the foundations of municipal governance – particularly role clarity, improved relations between council and staff, and intentional efforts to building trust and respectful decorum between CAOs and councils – are all needed to improve administrative viability in Alberta’s municipalities.






Research Papers