December 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 6 // Ideas at Work // 6IAW2

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Using Assessment Centers to Train Elected Officials and Community Leaders

The Assessment Center for Ohio County Commissioners provides a confidential and safe environment for individuals to experience job related activities. Expert panel members and Project EXCEL staff developed eight simulation exercises that reflect the tasks, duties, and activities of county commissioners. Each participant gets personalized, confidential feedback concerning 15 behavioral dimensions. Since 1991, seven assessment centers have been conducted with 63 participants. Project EXCEL, initiated in 1991, is funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Nikki L. Conklin
Staff Development
Internet address:

David M. Boothe
Local Government Issues and Director
Project EXCEL

Marilyn Spiegel
Assistant Director
Family and Consumer Sciences
Associate Dean
Human Ecology

Gail Gunderson
Organizational Development

Bill R. Haynes
Southwest District Director

Ohio State University Extension

Through Project EXCEL (Excellence in Community Elected and Appointed Leadership), aspiring and elected Ohio county commissioners have had the opportunity to experience assessment center activities for personal development. Assessment centers provide a confidential, safe environment for the analysis of job-related skills. The development of the Assessment Center for Ohio County Commissioners is a unique and innovative portion of Project EXCEL. Project EXCEL, initiated in 1991, is funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan. Project EXCEL staff are employees of Ohio State University Extension.

The Germans are given credit for developing assessment centers for military leaders. This practice was quickly adopted by the U.S. military during World War II and is now used by over 2,000 private and public organizations in this country for leader-manager selection and development (Thornton & Byham, 1982). Project EXCEL's version of the assessment center focuses on the development of county commissioners in Ohio. This is one of the first adaptations of assessment centers for elected officials.

Development of the Assessment Center for Ohio County Commissioners began with a job analysis resulting from the DACUM (Developing a Curriculum) approach (Norton, 1985). An expert panel of eight county commissioners nominated by their peers worked with three Project EXCEL facilitators to identify duties, tasks, and competencies necessary for the position of Ohio county commissioner. Using the job analysis, an expert panel of county commissioners and Project EXCEL staff identified 15 behavioral dimensions as a basis of the assessment center.

Expert panel members and Project EXCEL staff members developed eight simulation exercises that reflect actual tasks, duties, and activities of county commissioners, as well as the 15 observable behavioral dimensions. The developmental process and activities were consistent with guidelines published by the Task Force on Assessment Center Guidelines (1989). A typical Assessment Center for County Commissioners included 12 participants who complete eight simulation activities during a two day period. Trained assessors worked together to observe behaviors of each participant. The assessors collaborated to develop consensus ratings for each dimension and provided a narrative report describing the observed behaviors. Each participant received confidential feedback related to the dimensions and suggestions for individualized professional development.

The first Project EXCEL Assessment Center for Ohio County Commissioners was held July 30-31, 1991. This two day pilot assessment center permitted the project staff to further refine and improve the eight simulation exercises. To date, eight assessment centers have been held with 73 participants. County commissioners, commissioner candidates, and other public leaders such as Chamber of Commerce directors and school board members have been involved in the program. Including volunteers in the Assessment Center developmental process, more than 100 elected leaders representing 40 of Ohio's 88 counties have been involved in the program.

Participant response has been very positive. In qualitative evaluations, participants have described the assessment center activities as "real to life--they allowed me the opportunity to see how others can/cannot understand me" and that "the activities allowed in-depth time to analyze and reflect upon what skills were being used." Multi-dimensional activities tested styles, thought processes, and skills in communication. Participants noted "being assessed in an unbiased manner" and "exercises reflective of actual experience" as strengths.

As a result of participation, individuals have reported they have practiced what they learned, encouraged other elected officials to participate, and became more aware of how they individually respond to issues and people. Assessment center participants indicated interest in ongoing Extension leadership development programming, which has led to the development of eight curriculum guides with teaching materials and training for 79 Extension professionals and leadership program volunteers to meet programming demands. Since the inception of the Assessment Center, 80-100 programs have been held annually providing 450 hours of instruction to 2,500 community elected and appointed leaders.

The Project EXCEL staff is now working to expand the assessment center concept to reach more of Ohio's emerging and existing public leaders. Mayors, trustees, school board members, Chamber of Commerce directors, and other influential local leaders are among those being targeted for the development of specific assessment center experiences. Using the DACUM process, competency profiles have been completed for volunteer community leaders, small and mid-sized community mayors, and Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officers.


Norton, R. (1985). Dacum handbook. Leadership training series no. 67. Columbus, OH: The National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Thornton, G. C., III., & Byham, W. C. (1982). Assessment centers and managerial performance. New York: Academic.

Task Force on Assessment Center Guidelines (1989, Winter). Guidelines and ethical considerations for assessment center operations. Public Personnel Management, 18(4), pp. 457-469.