360 Review with Mattie Sue Stevens, City and County of Durham, NC

Posted on January 7, 2015

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Who doesn’t love a good ol’ fashioned performance review? ELGL loves them so much that we’re embarking on a “360 Review of Local Government.” We’re going to evaluate every single inch of the local government arena by talking to ourselves (a.k.a: other local government professionals), tech companies, journalists, professors, and anyone else who hasn’t blocked our email address.

Mattie Sue Stevens, City and County of Durham, NC staffer, is responsible for providing analysis and managing special projects for the City and County Managers’ Offices in Durham, NC. Mattie Sue (LinkedIn and Twitter) also has work experience in Catawba County, NC.



Your hometown? What is it best known for?

I’m from right outside Augusta, GA, best known as the hometown of the late, great James Brown and the Masters Tournament.

(Complete these phrases) Best thing about the….

  • 80’s was… that the “Eighties Woman” could have it all—a car phone AND a killer pantsuit.dr-evil-macarena-o
  • 90’s was… the Macarena.
  • 00’s was… pointless, hours-long conversations on AOL Instant Messenger.
  • Last year was… coming to Durham!
  • Today is… celebrating the holidays with our organization’s young professionals group—it’s inspiring to see so much talent and energy in one room.

Which bands would play at your retirement party?

A ‘70s cover band—anyone with “Boogie” in their name.

Best holiday gift that you’ve received? Given?

Received: My grandmother bought me and my siblings a countertop cotton candy machine when I was a little kid. I’ve never been so excited to unwrap a present.

Given: Making a deal with my husband to not exchange gifts for birthdays and holidays. Relieving each other of that expectation was a gift that keeps on giving!



Best part of working in the local government arena. Most frustrating?

  • Best: Working to directly improve our residents’ lives and being close enough to see the results.
  • Most frustrating: I’m always a little overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of community problems. A city or county government is one fish (whale? octopus?) in a sea of businesses, nonprofits, neighborhood/community groups, and other levels of government, and we function in so many different lines of business. (Octopus it is.) Layer in political dynamics and community history, and it sometimes seems amazing that we’re able to get anything

Describe the current state of local government.

I’m excited about the current state of local government for two reasons. First, our organizations have professionalized over the last several decades, paying increasing attention to efficiency, high-quality service delivery, equity, and customer service.  We’re far from perfect, but I really believe most residents in most communities get tremendous value for their tax dollars. Being good at the nuts-and-bolts of our work puts us in a great position to attack public problems in new and creative ways.

images (2)Second, the “local” movement (local food, local business, local music) continues to gain steam, even in smaller communities. I think Millennials in particular are drawn to the idea of community-based solutions and local pride. Hopefully, that rhetoric translates into residents paying more attention to their local governments, holding them more accountable and—more excitingly—seeing them as potential partners.

Give us three areas in which local government is succeeding.

  • Openness to the public: Though many may not realize it, residents have tremendous power to demand information and answers. These days, many governments have customer-friendly processes in place for reporting complaints and service requests. Very few major decisions are made without significant public input. And even if you can’t get any of “those bureaucrats” to listen to you, your elected officials are still close enough to touch.
  • Information sharing, benchmarking, and learning from other governments: There aren’t many trade secrets in this business, and I’ve consistently found staff from other governments willing to share information and advice. New technology making information-sharing easier and more benchmarking data available than ever before.
  • Financial management: Yes, there will always be wasteful government spending and corrupt officials. On the whole, however, local government funds are administered by shrewd, competent managers who push for lower costs, more efficiency, and better controls.

Give us three areas in which local government needs improvement.

  • “Let’s not reinvent the wheel”: Benchmarking and best practices are very, very useful… but not everything we should do has already been proven somewhere else.images (3)
  • Using language that people understand: If we really want more community involvement and feedback, we have to lower the barrier to entry. Let’s start with fewer acronyms in public-facing reports and presentations.
  • Performance measurement: Local governments have been talking seriously about data-driven management for at least 25 years, and yet many still struggle to even develop (much less use) good performance measures. What gives?

Evaluate local government’s willingness to embrace new technologies.

This really varies by organization (or even by department). Everyone knows there’s a lot of resistance to new technologies, but there is also sometimes an over-embrace of technology as a panacea for systemic issues. If a particular process doesn’t work well because of the personalities involved, competing priorities, unclear expectations, etc., making it electronic won’t magically solve those problems.

That said, I do see a lot of managers and teams trying to use technology to make their work faster and more customer-friendly. I’m excited to see IT staff positioning themselves as partners with other functions and to hear leaders say things like, “The technology is not the problem—figure out the best process, and we’ll find the right tool.”

For local government, was there any good that came from the Great Recession?


Amid all the pain, the recession did force local governments to look for cheaper and more efficient ways to deliver services. And as we recover, organizations are sometimes realizing that “Hey, maybe we didn’t actually need a receptionist in every department.” “Maybe we never should have been offering that service in the first place.”

Evaluate whether local government is prepared for the ongoing wave of retirements.

Are we ever really prepared for the loss of institutional knowledge that comes with a retirement? But there is definitely a lot of conversation about succession planning and talent retention happening within local governments (and related professional organizations). I see the biggest potential gaps at the department director level: there are many talented specialists in local governments, but succeeding as an executive also requires strong management skills, an organization-wide perspective, and an ability to work well with other departments. Mid-level managers in Social Services or Fleet or Street Maintenance don’t automatically cultivate those broader skills/perspectives. Thoughtful department directors put in the time and effort to actively groom their replacements… but not everyone makes that a priority.

Wave a magic wand – what three wishes would you grant local government?rafa-benitez-magic

  • More willingness to collaborate across agencies
  • More ability to compete with the private sector in recruiting talent
  • More stable and diverse revenue streams

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