Lifting the Local Gov Lens

Posted on April 22, 2019

Four panelists pose for picture

What I’m Watching: Legacies on Netflix because it really capitalizes on my love of teen drama and mystical creatures.

What I’m Reading: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – it’s historical fiction meets ghost story; short, engaging, and unexpected.

What I’m Listening To: Lizzo, in all her infinite glory

Four panelists pose for picture
Can you feel the inspiration coming from this picture?

On Friday, I participated in my first #ELGLInspire at Mills College. If you haven’t heard about the ELGL Inspire events, they are events held by ELGL and universities to bring together local government professionals with college students to talk about starting a career in public service. If the ELGL Board ever taps you on the shoulder and asks if you’d like to participate in one of these “Inspire things,” please say yes! It’s an amazing opportunity to spread the gospel of local government, and it’s also a great place to network and meet new friends (disclaimer: you don’t have to call them friends – they can just be colleagues or part of your network, that’s totally cool. I call them friends because I have enthusiasm boundary issues and also am very Midwestern. I am what I am). As we continue to talk about our vacancy rates, pending retirements and low recruitment in local government, we need to also think about how we share the local gov joy with those entering the workforce or searching for their place.

While I am honored to have participated in one of many aspects of the Inspire initiative, this is not just an article to evangelize #ELGLInspire (even though I definitely left inspired and with new swag – thanks Joey!). As I listened to and participated in conversations about why getting into local government was such a great idea, it reminded me of the lens we often develop in the public sector and the priority trade-offs we sometimes rationalize. 

Meme of man falling down stairs with text, "You. Random Event. Fulfilling Local Government Career."
How I discovered a fulfilling career in local government totally, mostly on purpose.

As Kirsten pointed out at the event, a lot of us just stumbled into this field. There wasn’t always thoughtful intention behind our public service. Many of us have evolved into our current positions through a mixture of timing, circumstance and maybe planning. Some of us started as lifeguards, some of us volunteered for a commission or something similar, and some of us just wanted a seemingly stable job with benefits and an occasional warm fuzzy feeling. We had no idea what we were getting into, but now that we’re here, it’s hard to imagine leaving (unless it’s your time, in which case Sarah wrote you the perfect break-up letter).

We live and breathe local government, and, if your job is anything like mine, it doesn’t always leave a lot of time for other things. It seeps into your day-to-day, causing you to forget that there are other non-local gov-related viewpoints. While it has its high points, like exploring new places through #CityHallSelfie, it can be a little isolating. You forget that there are other ways than the public sector, particularly your specific organization. You start assuming that we do it this way because there isn’t another way or the current way is better by default.

And even though we in ELGL talk a big game about innovation and taking risks, sometimes you just want to run a recruitment, not stage an HR revolution.

So we forget that we know important, meaningful things about inclusion or that we meant to fight for that change before we were bogged down under everything else. At the university, a student asked us whether local government (as represented by we four panelists) had considered whether the decidedly uninspiring hiring practices we had been describing were keeping people out who couldn’t wait 6-8 months to get a job or didn’t know how to navigate a cumbersome, sometimes ridiculous, application process. And I think our immediate reaction was, of course! You’re absolutely right! We know all about that! What is wrong with us! We would never!

Man with shocked face and text "pretends to be shocked."
Reaction shot when someone mentions local gov hiring practices are challenging.

But the truth is, we all have. I believe that we have all been party to prioritizing over innovation with whatever was necessary at the time, and that it is sometimes required in order to serve our communities. Unfortunately, I think making those concessions repeatedly can make them feel less like occasional allowances and more like standards we don’t even realize we’re setting. It’s startlingly clear in local government hiring practices where we still require paper forms or 10-month waiting periods, but we do it in small ways, too, ways that are sometimes too specific to see through our own local gov lens.

This is why these panels, these #ELGLInspire events are so valuable. Of course it’s necessary to share the story with the next generation, but it’s also good to remember how to talk about local government to people who aren’t already convinced it’s amazing, who have some very good questions about why we do things the way we do, and who may not know the story of why we do it this way.

It makes us evaluate where we are and what our path looks like to see if we’ve unknowingly become complicit with a structure that prohibits instead of permits. A local gov lens can provide clear direction and priorities, but we can’t get caught in the trap of believing that is the only lens available. If we can’t take responsibility for our current systems, how can we ever hope to build better ones?

Kendra Davis is a Management Analyst with the City of Santa Clara. If you follow her on Twitter (@KendraHwa), please prepare yourself for content regarding dogs, local government, ladies, and friends she’s never met in real life.

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