I Have to Ask: Make Local Government Sexy Again

Posted on December 17, 2018

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Darrin Wilson, Assistant Professor at Northern Kentucky University, shares his thoughts on building a talented local government workforce.

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Darrin WilsonAs a faculty member at Northern Kentucky University, one of my responsibilities is to oversee our Metropolitan Governance Track (i.e. local government) in the MPA Program. Students regularly ask me why they should pursue a career in local government rather than one in non-profits or higher levels of government. Additionally, students sometimes enter the MPA Program without realizing there is an option to specialize in local government management. For years, I have wondered why students are unaware of local government management as a career option and how we can encourage them to pursue it. In this article, I will describe the two causes of the problem I’ve seen firsthand and three solutions that may work to remedy the problem.

Make Local Government Sexy Again

Year after year, I see undergraduate and graduate students interested in public service focus their academic degrees (or degree concentrations) in homeland security, public policy, or non-profit management. While these professions are important, I ask students why they pursue them. I get answers like, “The jobs in the field look exciting.” or “I think this is where I can make the biggest difference.”

Let’s examine the first reason, the “exciting” factor. I, like many of you I assume, grew up in The West Wing era, watching an idealistic President and staff navigate the politics and affairs of a nation and wanting to work in politics or government. How many people do we know that watched The Practice and wanted to be a lawyer? Like many of us, current students grow up watching exciting shows about politics, law, police, etc. and want to pursue that as a career. We did have our own successful show about local government, Parks and Recreation, and I know it has influenced several of my MPA students to pursue a career in local government. Obviously, what students see on TV isn’t exactly what the reality of that career is, but we must do a better job of showing them how exciting and rewarding working in local government is.

Next, let’s look at the “difference” factor. I am a firm believer in the phrase associated with Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, “All politics are local.” and believe this is the same for policy as well. Students have a misconception that in order to make a difference in government they need to go to Washington without realizing that local government is where real change that directly affects people can happen. Students are attracted to the national aspect and think that because it is the national government, it makes the biggest policy differences. Obviously, the national government is important, but the politics and the large bureaucracy of it makes policy change slow, if it happens at all. All of this can also be said of state governments to a lesser extent. As we know, there is politics and bureaucracy at the local government level, but every day local governments around this country are developing and implementing innovative policy changes. We must do a better job of showing students how local government makes a difference.

Finally, continuing the “difference” factor, some students believe that the best way to directly help people is through non-profits. Non-profits are wonderful organizations that deliver vital services to out communities when government cannot or will not provide them. However, I argue that local governments have two advantages over non-profits when it comes to impacting a community. First, non-profits have a more inconsistent revenue streams as compared to local governments. While local governments can have revenue declines that affect service delivery, they have a tax base from which they can extract. However, when a non-profit loses a grant or contract, or fundraising didn’t yield as much from the previous cycle, there isn’t a solid financial base they can pull from. Second, non-profits have a specific mission to help specific groups within the population, may it be children, the elderly, disable, etc. However, local governments have the responsibility to help all people within the community and the duty to provide services, which enhance the quality of life for all. Local governments are responsible for a wide variety of public services, from economic/community development to parks to public safety. Students must be shown that if they want to have the greatest impact on the greatest number of people in their community, local government is the way to go.

Show Me The Jobs

All MPA students, and most undergraduate students enter their academic program with the concern of employability. When I attend career fairs at universities, most if not all government organizations with booths are federal and state agencies, particularly law enforcement agencies. Students don’t realize that as the Baby Boomer generation retires out of local government, there is a growing need for young talent to fill the vacated positions. Additionally, students are in desperate need of internship opportunities, particularly ones that pay. While some local governments are good about having formal internship programs, many are not and this must change. When I talk to City Managers and City Administrators about providing internships for students the only concern I hear is, “I don’t have the capacity to oversee and manage an intern.” This is particularly true of smaller local governments, but I know if we could get one of our students in there, they will be able to gain hands on experience and help that community because there isn’t time or resources to waste having them just make copies or coffee. As a field, we must do a better job of showing students there are job openings in local governments and help them get their foot in the door.

(Editor’s note: For jobs and internship opportunities, view the ELGL Job Board and ELGL Jobs Facebook Group.)

What Can We Do?

Northern KentuckyFirst, we must do a better job of promoting our local form of government. While we may not able to get Aaron Sorkin to do a show on local government, we can promote it in the classroom and on campus. In my current MPA-level Local Government Management class, I’ve had five guest speakers throughout the semester from local governments in the region to discuss what they do in their job and the students are working in two communities on a research project studying local government branding. Work with university faculty, may they be in a MPA Program like me, or in other fields like Parks Management, Finance, Criminal Justice, etc. and provide guest speakers, or better yet provide faculty with class projects the students can work on during the semester (we love that sort of thing). Talk about your story, how you got into local government, the significant impact you make on people’s lives on a daily basis, and how the students can enter the field. If you have a local MPA program and there aren’t classes focused on local government, let alone a concentration in local government management like mine, then work with them on developing one. Students are becoming more interested in concentrations and credentialing, so having something geared towards local government gives them the ability to show their specialization on local government.

Second, be a mentor. Our MPA Program had an open house earlier in the semester and we launched a formal mentorship program, connecting students with mentors from our three concentration areas: local government, homeland security\emergency management, and non-profit management. We had twice the number of students and mentors in the local government room as the other two combined. As the only NASPAA-accredited MPA Program in the Greater Cincinnati area, we have deep ties with our local governments and can ask alum and others in the local government community to take our students under their wing. If you have not mentored a student before, or do not have a formal mentorship program with your local university, please consider it. It is a wonderful experience for both the mentor and mentee. For folks not interested in being a formal mentor, but still wanting to help, most MPA Programs have a student association. Consider working with that association on an event such as a tour of your city hall, networking event, or service day.

Finally, provide formal internships (paid if possible) to the students and promote job openings. Students are craving formal internships and co-op credits, and I’m sure as local government leaders you always have projects that you don’t have time to work on. If you don’t have a local MPA Program, work with other degree programs to find students that may be interested in your internships. For example, Finance majors in your local business school could be wonderful interns in your government’s Finance Department. Be present at college career fairs, even if you don’t have any openings because for students, talking to your government’s representative will make them more likely to check in periodically when you do have an opening.

These are just some of the ideas of how we can get more students interested in the exciting career of local government. I’m sure there are other ideas you’ve thought of and would like to pursue. No matter the size of your government, or whether or not you have a local MPA Program, work with the local university and students. Encourage them to join wonderful organizations like Engaging Local Government Leaders, and show them the way to a career path that makes a difference in people’s lives every day.

Dr. Darrin Wilson is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at Northern Kentucky University. He teaches courses and researches topics on local government management, public budgeting, and community/economic development. Feel free to email him anytime at wilsond32@nku.edu. To learn more about the MPA Program at NKU

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