By Sam Taylor, Assistant City Administrator – City of Ferndale, WA
This is a column on issues that ELGL has focused on regarding the 13 Percent Movement, and the idea that there simply aren’t enough female and minority managers in local government. As we’ve learned, women make up just 13 percent of chief administrators in municipal entities and that figure hasn’t changed since 1984 (for the record, that’s the year I was born. I apologize for making you feel old). So I want to just briefly note that I am going to get to the point of this article quickly. First, a philosophical divergence.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about progress, positivity and communication. For me, these things are pillars of public administration and how we as local government staffers help move our communities forward. I believe it’s inherent in the field of public service (which is what we do) that we empower our citizens through communication and positivity to take the reins of their community government and lead it to the future. We’re here to help that, but it’s their government. There is too much anger and mistrust toward government that, I believe, is simply unnecessary and avoidable. It often comes from misunderstanding. Empowering our residents through education about their civic structure is crucial for that progress of the community.
That idea of empowerment, to me, isn’t just an external idea. That same thought plays out in City Hall, too, where it is incumbent on managers and supervisors to encourage employees to strive to achieve their fullest potential.
And that’s where I bring us back to issues surrounding the lack of female and minority managers in government. This may seem odd, but my experience largely centers on the struggle of female staff members to move upward and to have those opportunities at management. Yes, weird, I know. I’m a dude.
But I began my career in government as a city clerk, a profession largely dominated by an amazing group of women who, really, form the backbone of many municipal entities. I’m sure many managers reading this know of a clerk who they rely on daily for much of the work they do. They’d be lost without this person who has their fingers in council meeting management, public records, records management, licensing and much more. If I told you this person was leaving your city tomorrow, I’d wager your pulse would start racing.
And so it ticks me off that more of these amazing employees aren’t provided additional opportunities to take the skill set they bring to the profession of the Clerk’s Office and translate it into upper management. I am adamant that this can be done and should be done. The city clerk is often an overlooked employee in a city. They’re often the catch-all office for work that doesn’t fit neatly into the box of another department like public works or community development. But think about the skill set necessary to be adaptable to those conditions; to be able to pick up any task and make it happen, often times from scratch and with little knowledge of the work ahead. It’s a skill set that should be embraced at a higher level of government.
How can we make that happen? I’ve got three suggestions, two about the work place itself and one really geeky discussion. Let’s start with my dropping some geek knowledge on you about organizational management theory.
In the evolution of management over time, social scientists tracked a change from “human relations theory,” in which managers sought to facilitate the adjustment of workers to their work environment in order to improve morale and reduce resistance to authority to “human resources theory,” defined by managers working to satisfy ego and personal growth of employees by providing employees with the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. In one case, workers are adjusted to the work environment and in the other workers are empowered in the work environment and therefore the office benefits.
Jonathan Tompkins defined the basic characteristics this way: “Organizational performance is enhanced by developing worker’s unique talents, creating and sustaining an environment of openness and trust, removing constraints on personal autonomy and individual discretion, enriching work, and providing opportunities for everyone to participate in decision making. Human development and intrinsic satisfaction are primary values” (Tompkins, 2005).
Berkley Professor Raymond E. Miles stated that a core assumption of human resources theory is that workers are “reservoirs of untapped resources, that they have the capacity to be self-directing and self-controlling, and that organizational performance is determined by how fully the organization develops and utilizes its human resources (Tompkins, p. 270).
In other words, it’s less about controlling an employee for the sake of organizational objectives (as with human relations theory) and more about propelling employees to success and organizational success will follow.
Make sense? For decades upon decades we’ve known of a major social science movement that encouraged the empowerment of employees to bring about organizational success. Over time human resources theory has been further refined and how employees are empowered and encouraged has been studied in myriad ways. But the basic idea behind this theory is an important one.
That brings us back to the issue of a lack of women in positions of power in local government. It’s a darn shame. I have attended both Washington State Municipal Clerk’s Association conferences as well as the International Association of Municipal Clerks conferences. I’ve literally never been to any other work-related conferences that did more to engage me in the core ideas behind the work we do and how we can enhance the service we provide to the community. Those ideas came from hundreds of women, really, who built those organizations into what they are today. The reservoir of experience and knowledge appears untapped in the office itself, and so I believe there is literally a fountain of available upper management candidates directly within each of our organizations this very minute.
So how do we address this? Two ways, as I promised to explain before:
- Managers must empower their employees to seek their fullest potential. They must provide those opportunities to their employees. But it’s just not enough to make those declarations and think that’s good enough. You haven’t done your part. Not all of it. As the boss, it’s your duty to aggressively encourage this, to follow up with these employees. To find budget dollars to send them to training, and to make it clear that the reason why you’re doing so is because you value them as an employee and believe they can do more for the organization and, therefore, the taxpayers. You owe it to the employee, but in the end, you owe it to your community to find the best and brightest.
- It’s easy to put it all on the manager. So I won’t. To my clerk colleagues, I say to you that you owe it to yourself to step forward and make it clear when you have interest to do more for your organization and to explain why. It takes more than a manager coming to you – you must go to them. Have that discussion. I am a huge believer that many of the things we deal with in the office can be resolved or moved forward with constant communication. This is no exception. For the clerk, it’s so easy to just keep your head down and do your work and go home and then stew on it later when you feel like you’re not being recognized for the work you do. Put your head up and be aggressive about your passion for community service. Make it known. Demand satisfaction. And just like your manager, who owes it to you, you owe it to yourself – and you also owe it to your community to offer yourself up for more if you believe you can do it.
It all comes back to progress, positivity and communication. They’re pillars of public service and they are the base we build our staff resources, our City Halls and our communities upon. Now is the time to have these conversations and to continue to move forward.
Our communities deserve it.
Tompkins, Jonathan R. (2005). “Organization Theory and Public Management.” Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.