The Future Leaders of Local Government

ARTICLE | Nov 28, 2011

How can local government and academic professionals inspire and serve as a catalyst to influence the

Why would any young career-minded professional desire to seek out a position in public service? Today there is a rapidly changing, increasingly vitriolic public arena, questioning the purpose and value of government. The public’s opinion on governance in the US rapidly diminishing: according to Gallup, Congress’ approval rating is at its all time low, hovering around 15%.[1] Combined with the stories of corruption and criminality (Bell, CA and Jefferson County, AL come to mind), it is obvious we’re in a period of high discontent towards public employees. Is the public sector losing its ability to attract and pluck out the smartest, most talented young professionals? Have stagnant wages and a public backlash against benefit packages and other forms of compensation served as a disincentive to young professionals from pursuing a career in local government like the polling data and the mass media machine implies it should? What can you, as local government professionals and academics, do to encourage the best and brightest to pursue a career in local government? At the Alliance, we decided to see if the theme of discontent pervades local government and is discouraging potential future local government leaders. The responses we got from young people pursuing a career in local government, directly in conflict with this theme, may be surprising and motivating.

We collected interviews from past and present Marvin Andrews Scholars (MAs) [2]  at varying stages in their careers on their decision to pursue a career in local government. It is clear from their responses that MPA programs around the country like Arizona State University continue to attract, retain and train top flight talent to lead local governments into the future. What are the elements that have them choosing this path?

In the short essays that we received, the answers to why they chose this specific career track are markedly similar and embrace two common themes: community and service. These two words—service and community—have been, and continue to be, the primary motivating force behind choosing a career in local government. Some of the MAs that have come through the ASU program started their careers in various positions in the federal and state governments. Yet, they abandoned that track and pursued a career in the more intimate environment of local government. As one of our respondents, who currently works for a local government in Arizona said, “[I]n local government you see the impact you make and find joy in doing what you do day in and day out. Whether working on plans to create a new community park, creating partnerships with the school districts and community colleges, or helping to bring a major economic development project to the community  I understand and see the impact my efforts have.”

Others seemed to recognize at a young age that they were blessed as recipients of public services. Whether they grew up in poor neighborhoods or wealthy ones, they came to see the community as a reflection of those who worked for it and gained a great appreciation for the talent that was dedicated to making a place “home” for people who lived there.

Public service is a calling. It is about an opportunity to feel a part of something bigger than oneself.  There is a certain type of person needed to embrace this track and work for a greater good, but those are exactly the type of leaders local government has attracted in the past, continues to attract today and must attract into the future. Reflecting on her career in local government, Karen Thoreson, President of the Alliance of Innovation says, “Despite frustrations with process and politics, I can’t imagine a more rewarding career than working for a city where I live. Every day you meet people who have aspirations which you can help fulfill. Over a career, I can look back on improved neighborhoods , new businesses and families who benefited from us working together to make our community better. I can only hope my experiences can influence and inspire future generations to contribute as well.” In today’s age of get-rich-quick and work-at-home schemes, it is inspiring and rejuvenating to know that local government still embodies the altruistic, community-first attitude that has made our counties, cities and towns some of the greatest in the world.

For that reason, the likelihood that the disdain towards public employees will never make its way into the local government niche as much as it has infiltrated the federal conversation. After all, local government employees are not abstract figures hidden away in Washington D.C.; they are not just talking heads who attempt to harness the malcontent and frustration of these times for personal gain. They are neighbors, people who grew up in the community. They share the same grocery stores and fill their gas up on the same corner. They check out the same books at the library and share many of the same frustrations as their neighbors. So it makes sense that our future leaders would hold the function of local government in high regard. They want to be able to look their neighbor in the eyes and let them know, “We are doing everything we can to make life better for you, your family, and your future generations.” They have a prevailing desire to inspire impactful change and progress like the many leaders before us.

The landscape of local government is changing. The expectation consumers of local government services have is evolving and will remain a moving target. Increasingly the issues addressed by local government will require a partnership between government and citizens for effective action.  Governance is never static—it works around the needs and limitations of the communities it provides while keeping one eye open towards the future. Every player in our increasingly connected communities has a role in encouraging and engaging our future leaders and must adjust to the changing climate. Regarding the role of the academic community, Jonathan Koppell, Director of the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University says, “We must prepare the future leaders of local governments for this reality, giving them the tools to thrive in today’s environment but also tomorrow’s and the day after that.  For this reason the School of Public Affairs at ASU sees its partnership with practitioners as absolutely essential.  We must be as ready and eager to adapt to changing circumstances as the governments our graduates will manage.”

There are no guarantees. Local governments and the leaders within have to constantly maintain a steady message of inspiration. What are you willing to do to continue to influence and motivate future leaders? How can you harness and affect the passion of our future leaders?

Read the interviews with ASU MPA Program Marvin Andrews Fellows and Alliance for Innovation Management Interns here.

 

References:

[1] Gallup, Congressional Job Approval, September 12, 2011, http://www.gallup.com/poll/149399/Congressional-Job-Approval.aspx.

[2] Marvin Andrews Scholars are selectively chosen out of the Arizona State University SPA MPA program to serve a year term as a Management Intern with the Alliance for Innovation before being placed into a local government to serve a year as an intern gaining on-the-job training.

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