Leaving Local Government: The Causes, Impacts and Potential for Future Returns

ARTICLE | Jun 2, 2016

There have been many articles recently across all fields highlighting the low percentage of women in leadership roles.  Early this year ICMA examined women in local government leadership and ELGL continued the discussion with a series on the 13% issue.  These conversations are insightful.  However, they made me want to hear, and quantify, the unrepresented voices – the women (and men) that exited these roles and paths to leadership.

If in 30 years the number of women in leadership roles in local government has stayed at 13%, then by my calculation, we’re conservatively missing 20% more women. This number is significant enough to imply that maybe the answer isn’t short or simple.   Perhaps the choice isn’t one or the other.  If women on the path to local government leadership have left, why did they leave and would they return?

As we review the survey data, there is a caveat to the responses.  In early 2015 we asked ELGL and Alliance for Innovation members and friends to forward the survey to their contacts that had exited government service since there is not a central database of former local government employees. This is, admittedly, not the most scientific way to administer a survey. We could not sample the population of interest, so the following answers only apply to the individuals from whom we heard.       

In this survey we received responses from 135 former and current public servants.  Major statistics from this group are:

  • White:  80%
  • Female: 72%
  • MPA/MPP: 48%
  • Level Served: “Other”: 39%
  • Time Served in Previous Local Government Role: 1-3 years:  37%
  • From the state of: Oregon: 23%
  • Now serving in: Local Government – Different Role: 23% and
  • Consulting – Related to Government: 18%

Our respondents are more diverse in service than the population I had originally sought to profile.  However, these responses provide another reference point for the leadership discussion.  

When we look at all responses, the number one answer about their reason for leaving the field of local government was for increased financial or benefits compensation. Their next response was to pursue other career interests and the third answer was burnout.   I invite you to review the next chart and consider your own experiences.  

Do the responses affirm things you’ve heard from colleagues or that you have felt?   

There are two responses included in this chart that were not part of the provided responses.  Those are ‘other: lack of advancement’ and ‘other: political’. These two comments appeared frequently in the open ended responses.  Therefore, I have recoded responses to capture these opinions.

80% of these respondents said they would consider returning to local government leadership.  With this result and our 13% issue in mind, the next step was to look by gender, and the answers are positive.  About 4 out of 5 females stated they’d return to local government leadership while 3 out of 4 males said the same.  The responding men were actually less likely to return to local government leadership, as a percentage of reported gender, than were women.

If we look at the responses by previous level of service, we see that there are 38 females and 6 males that served in the ‘other’ level of government that would be interested in a ‘return to local government leadership’.  Although I wrote the survey to see if former executives and senior managers would return to local government, it appears we actually heard from many professionals beginning their careers.  The good news is they aspire to leadership roles.  Perhaps this graph illustrates better than any other the desire and interest of the next generation to lead.  

When asked why they’d return to local government, many respondents cited the rewards and positive attributes of public service careers.  The following are just a couple:

“Passion for local government and public involvement and advocacy”

“I enjoyed working for and with the public - Giving back to community by assisting them with questions.”

Respondents’ additional thoughts covered a variety of topics.   Some made comments about perceived favoritism while others discussed the challenges of being recognized:   

“In general, it seems that people are not promoted because of integrity, work ethic or expert knowledge, but instead based on length of time worked and who they know.”

“Government treats everybody the same.  Cannot retain great people if you don’t treat them well.”

“…gov(ernment) drives people away by following age old rules and reg(ulation)s not allowing for advancement…”

Lack of opportunity for advancement and development was a topic that several respondents mentioned.   One respondent stated: “There were not ample opportunities in local government in order to take on further responsibility. Wish there would have been room for advancement.”

The issues and concerns that these respondents expressed have been part of the public sector discourse for twenty years or more. Each organization and employee is unique and not every role will be a good pairing.   Individuals that are still working toward their goal position should continue to prepare.  

If current leaders want to retain this willing group in their organizations, they need to provide and guide them to development opportunities.  Consider if job swaps might be beneficial to your agency and current employees.  This approach may not be possible in all organizations but can provide opportunities for growth and development for future leaders.  

The need for development, retention and recruitment in local government in the future has been established.  It will be interesting to see the approaches various organizations use.  My hope is that when we look at demographics again in 2020 that we will see local government leadership that’s more reflective of the public we serve.

To read more of the discussion, please visit www.elgl.org and search #13percent.  You can also use this link toTake a look at the last article in the Push/Pull series: http://elgl.org/2015/06/25/pushpull-closing-out-the-pushpull-analysis/

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