Teaching local government. Dr. Peter Jones, Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, joined the podcast to talk about his classes teaching students about public service careers. He discussed how he teaches students about different government government careers and ways to be a public servant. He also shared what students are interested in and might be helpful in recruiting and retaining the next generation of leaders. Dr. Jones even talked about how he has used GovLove Podcast episodes in his classes.
Host: Alyssa Dinberg
Alyssa Dinberg 00:00
Started recording. Alright, coming to you from Denver, Colorado, this is Gov Love a podcast about local government. Gov Love is produced by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. We engage the brightest minds in local government. I’m Alyssa Dinberg, Recovery Coordinator for Clear Creek County. And today I’m joined by Dr. Peter Jones, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Welcome to Gov Love, Pete.
Peter Jones 00:36
Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
Alyssa Dinberg 00:38
Yeah, super excited to have you here. I think most of our listeners know, but I went to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa for undergrad. So it’s fun to have that connection.
Peter Jones 00:48
Absolutely. I’m learning I’m supposed to say “Roll Tide” when I meet someone. You are. Yeah, “Roll Tide.” So today, we’re gonna talk about public administration as a career. And the work Pete is doing to teach and develop the next generation of public servants. I know, as as a public servant in my daytime job, recruiting the next the next generation of leaders is extremely important to keep our profession and our cities going. So I’m really excited to learn what Pete has been doing in his classes and how we can learn from him on recruiting and hiring those talented young people. So before we get started with the the meat of our conversation, we’re gonna start with a lightning round, as we do with every episode, and my first question is, what is your most controversial non political opinion? Ooh. So I have to give a shout out to a group text, who endures all of my non political opinions and takes, and lets me know if they’re really that controversial. So I think based on their responses, some some of my old friends, my most controversial non political opinion, is that on The Office, Jim should have stayed with Karen, and not stuck it out for Pam, which is, yes. I’ve almost lost some friendships over this. But that’s, I’m staking my claim there.
Alyssa Dinberg 02:16
I think we’re, I think that’s a really good one. A lot of people are gonna have some very passionate opinions about that. So I’m excited to see the conversation on Twitter about that.
Peter Jones 02:26
You may have just lost some listeners.
Alyssa Dinberg 02:29
We might have, but we probably gained some too.
Peter Jones 02:31
Big fans of Pam.
Alyssa Dinberg 02:32
Yeah, that’s a good one. So my next question is, what book are you currently reading? And would you recommend it?
Peter Jones 02:41
I’m almost finished with Larry Tye’s biography of “Satchel” Paige, the great baseball player. He was kind of known for just he pitched into his 50s. He set all kinds of records, mainly pitched in the Negro Leagues, but was, made his way into the Major Leagues a year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. And it’s just a fascinating read. I’m mainly into nonfiction. So if you’re into nonfiction, I would, I would recommend it. And autobiographies, especially they just the really good ones weave historical context and kind of give you an understanding of why people did what they did and, and why the rest of us may have appreciated what they did.
Alyssa Dinberg 03:29
Are you a big baseball fan?
Peter Jones 03:30
I am. And so actually, maybe my second most controversial take is that baseball is the most popular sport in the US compared to others.
Alyssa Dinberg 03:40
Oh no. I do not agree with that. That’s funny. Are you a Braves fan?
Peter Jones 03:47
I’m not, I grew up in Western Kentucky. And so I’m St. Louis Cardinals fan through and through.
Alyssa Dinberg 03:51
Okay. All right.
Peter Jones 03:53
Alyssa Dinberg 03:54
Yeah. That’s awesome. So what do you think the greatest invention of all time is?
Peter Jones 04:02
Oh, man, there’s so many good ones. The toothbrush comes to mind. I just can’t imagine a world without with with everyone with bad breath. And then I live in the south. So air conditioning, refrigerators, just having ice when it’s 100 degrees outside is the greatest thing ever in Birmingham. So any one of those, air conditioning, ice, toothbrush.
Alyssa Dinberg 04:27
It’s funny you say ice. I lived in Israel for about a year. And it’s, as everybody knows, it’s very hot in Israel during the summer and they don’t use ice there and it was really interesting and hard to adjust like much more hard, much harder than I thought it would be to adjust to not using ice in my drinks.
Peter Jones 04:50
I can’t imagine it. Cannot imagine
Alyssa Dinberg 04:55
what is your favolite-ugh, I can’t talk to this morning-well, what is your favorite family tradition?
Peter Jones 05:02
So with COVID, we, you know, a lot of family traditions had to take a pause this year. So I kind of had to think hard about what our favorite one is. And my wife and I have a three year old and a one year old. So we’re really developing our family traditions now. So I would have to say the every year for the holidays, we tend to take a trip back to Kentucky, my wife and I are both from Kentucky. And on our way back to Kentucky, about 30 miles north of Birmingham, there’s Rickwood Caverns State Park, which is a beautiful state park, but it’s got a cave system, and they set up a winter wonderland in the cave. And you walk through the cave for a good 15 or 20 minutes. And at the end, you know, kind of down in this tunnel is Santa. And that’s our kids. Our tradition has been you know, every year you go see Santa, our kids get to see Santa in the Rickwood Caverns cave. And my daughter Evelyn is not a fan of Santa, in part I think because it’s really weird to basically travel down a cave, and then there’s this old guy in a red suit waiting for you. She loves the rest of it, but once we get to Santa, she has not been a big fan. So-
Alyssa Dinberg 06:21
That’s so funny.
Peter Jones 06:23
But it’s awesome. And you know, they, the whole cave is lit up with lights. And so it’s really become our favorite stop on our way back to Kentucky.
Alyssa Dinberg 06:33
That’s awesome. I love that. That’s so cool. I want to do it. Next time I’m in the south, I’m gonna have to do it.
Peter Jones 06:39
Yes, you’ve got to! It’s it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen kind of a state park do.
Alyssa Dinberg 06:45
I hope all of our southern listeners go next year and take a lot of pictures and post them on Twitter and tag us so that we can see them.
Peter Jones 06:54
Alyssa Dinberg 06:55
So last question in our lightning round. If you were a vegetable, what would you be and why?
Peter Jones 07:01
This is so tough, my step family farms in Western Kentucky and so I feel so much pressure on picking a vegetable with us. But I would have to say corn. You know, I think corn is used in so many different things. I love corn, My kids love corn. And that just growing up in Western Kentucky that was kind of reminded you of the changing the seasons as the cornfields grew up and so I have to pick corn, I think I’m useful in a lot of, I hope to think I’m useful in a lot of ways. And and that just reminds me of my childhood.
Alyssa Dinberg 07:44
Are you on the cob or off the cob kind of guy?
Peter Jones 07:48
I am off the cob.
Alyssa Dinberg 07:50
Same same. Yeah, it’s a controversial opinion.
Peter Jones 07:53
Yeah. So all right, we’ve got I’ve got three controversial opinions. Hopefully, we’ve gained more than we lost. But yeah, I am off the cob. I don’t want to the corn in the teeth and the working and all that. I just would rather cut it all off and eat it.
Alyssa Dinberg 08:11
I totally agree. I have a lot of like dental issues. And so I can’t really even eat on the cob even if I wanted to, but it doesn’t, I don’t know I just, why work for it when you can just cut it off and eat it?
Peter Jones 08:23
It’s also fun too, because my daughter has now grown, grown to the age where she can eat off the cob. And so she kind of views me as this like younger kid like, What? Why are you still cutting your corn off the cob? Eat like an adult.
Alyssa Dinberg 08:38
Peter Jones 08:39
It’s fun to see her kind of, you know, joke with me that I’m still eating it off the cob.
Alyssa Dinberg 08:45
That’s really funny. All right, well, let’s move into the meat of our conversation. I’m really looking forward to learning from you about what you’re seeing in the classroom and how that’s gonna show up in our interviews and recruiting and hiring of talent. So, as I mentioned in the intro, you’re a public administration professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I was hoping you could just briefly tell the listeners about what your background is and why you chose to teach public administration?
Peter Jones 09:15
Sure. So I have to say before I talk about my background, that I’ve used several Gov Love podcast episodes in class, and one of the themes that students have picked up on is that no one’s career path is a straight line. For some reason, they think that they should have it all figured out as a freshman. And with each guest that you all have on here that you asked this question, my students like slowly picked up on or figured out that none of us have it figured out or ever had it figured out. And I’m no different. I never thought I would be Professor doing research and teaching about public administration. Like I said, I was born and raised in Western Kentucky. Originally, I actually thought I was going to go into health care because my mom is a nurse. Most of my family works in health care. So I was I was just sure that was what I was going to do. I actually got a job when I started at UK, the University of Kentucky, as a nursing assistant in the emergency department there. And I quickly learned that I was not cut out cut out for healthcare. I was okay with the blood and guts. I loved working the big traumas. But really, my heart wasn’t in it. And, you know, more so the emergency departments are a catch all for so many of the broader health policy issues that that started to wear on me. I did luck out, I met a wonderful woman, Allison, who eventually agreed to marry me, met the guy who would be the best man at my wedding. So I know how tough and how wonderful healthcare workers are. But I just learned I wasn’t cut out for that mold. But so after my healthcare dreams were gone, I ended up with a bachelor’s in journalism. I graduate in 2009, when journalism the industry was reeling from the death of print news. But I was still working in emergency department, UK had a great tuition benefits. So I decided to get my Master’s of Public Policy at UK’s Martin school. And in my first class, I had the great Merl Hackbart teaching me public budgeting. So I was hooked. Dr. Hackbart had served as a state budget director, he’d been in academia for years. And he actually asked me if I was interested in pursuing a PhD. No one in my family had one of those, so I’d really never thought about it. But at the time, Allison and I, Allison had decided to get her PhD in nursing. So I figured out, we should probably suffer both as poor grad students, or at least suffer together. And so I decided to go and get my doctoral degree and go into this field. I was fortunate enough to have some great mentors at the Martin school. My advisor was Dr. Jean atoma, she did a lot of education policy work. So I married that public budgeting from Dr. Hackbart with the Ed policy that she did. And I now study school district budgets. I’m here, absolutely love what I do. Teaching folks about public budgets, quantitative methods. And I guess, my, my dad is a teacher. And my maternal grandfather was a teacher. So I didn’t fall too far from the tree, as they say. But I really never envisioned myself doing this and being a public administration professor.
Alyssa Dinberg 12:20
That’s great. I love that. And you’re so right. I don’t think any of us have taken a straight, most of us haven’t taken a straight path to get to where we are. So it’s, it’s always fun to hear how people got to where they are. I really enjoy listening to that question.
Peter Jones 12:35
Yeah. And I think, you know, my students always find it fascinating to know that I worked as a nursing assistant. And, you know, one of the things I’ve learned is that there’s, there’s really no wasted time. I mean, so many of the things I learned there have served me well, even in my, my career as a professor, let alone You know, things outside, but I’ve been shocked at just, you know, how none of us really take that straight line. And I think so many people think that we should so so hopefully, hopefully students start to get that.
Alyssa Dinberg 13:10
Yeah, I love that you’re using our Gov Love episodes in your classroom. Later in the episode, I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you’ve used the episodes and what you think the impact it’s made. But for now, let’s just stick to the class that you were teaching. So from my understanding, you were teaching undergrad students. What What was the class called and what was your ultimate goal for the curriculum?
Peter Jones 13:40
So the class was called PSC 100, Introduction to Public Service. It was actually something we’d had on the books for several several years, but no one in my department had taught it in more than a decade. So my department chair really wanted to get more of the folks who were teaching in the public administration, the MPA program, into the undergraduate classroom. So he asked me to launch this, this past fall. I agreed and, and really kind of had this blank slate to, to introduce undergrads to public service. So my main goal is to really expand student perspectives on what public service means, who we consider public servants to be, what what kind of roles and I really want to show them that you can serve the public, it doesn’t matter if you work in the public sector or the private sector. It doesn’t matter if you want to go into computer science, or, you know, biomedical sciences, there’s a role in government or in the public sector or out in the nonprofit world to that you can serve and kind of help help us push forward this this idea of public service. And, you know, maybe you want to run for elected office, but for those of us who don’t want to do that, There’s just so many things out there that you can do to kind of help serve your local community or your broader community, too.
Alyssa Dinberg 15:09
Was this a required class for students like as a to meet credits? Or did they take this because they’re interested in learning more about local government?
Peter Jones 15:17
I would like to say that they took it because they were all super interested in local government, but I don’t think that was the case. It was actually an honor, it counted as an honors elective.
Alyssa Dinberg 15:28
Got it. Okay.
Peter Jones 15:29
So most of the students were there just to fulfill that. And so I had a lot of freshmen, sophomores kind of checking that box. I actually had very few political science students, which I was shocked by, only about a third of the class were political science students, I had pre-nursing, neuroscience, biomedical sciences, business, I even had a biology student, which I absolutely loved, had somebody going going into biology. And, and they were, I will say, they were interested in kind of learning about government and public service. Most of them had some kind of idea that sooner or later, they may want to do something public service wise, but but for the most part, they were there because it really fulfilled some elective credit.
Alyssa Dinberg 16:21
That’s really cool. Um, so what was your your observation of students knowledge of local government prior, I guess, at the beginning of the class? And then did you see a shift? And what was that shift in with their, obviously, their knowledge shift, but their interest in local government?
Peter Jones 16:42
It was, it was all over the place. So I had one student whose mom worked as a city attorney. And so she had a pretty good understanding of that there was a local government. What local governments kind of did at least she knew that they had city attorneys. But for other students, I mean, their idea of, of local government, their idea of public service, really, you know, they had never really thought beyond that there was that there is government. You know, and a lot of ways they, these students were active in some policy issues, but they didn’t really think where, who is who’s enacting policies and what level and so they were just, I remember, one of the first classes I just gave them, asked them to guess how many local governments we had in the United States. And I mean, they were so some of them were smart, and that they kind of knew there were counties. So maybe 3000, right? And they kind of guessed, guessed around there. But they were just floored to know that there were 90,000 local governments, and that these 90,000 local governments have people working for them. And so, so I would say, in the beginning, yeah, pretty varied, pretty, you know, not at not a ton of knowledge in terms of public service and local government. And towards the end. I like to think that I increased their knowledge. At least I hope I did. But I certainly had a lot more people interested. I’m proud to say that that about half the students in my class have enrolled in our advanced bachelors to MPA program or at least have looked into enrolling it, we’ve we’ve met with them, so they’re realizing that, yeah, maybe I want to do something in public health. But if I’m going to work in the public sector, that really understanding public administration really understanding that it’s likely going to be at the local level, and in a lot of ways. Understanding that’s pretty important. So, you know, I like to think they learned something, but at the very least, they seemed more interested in public service.
Alyssa Dinberg 18:51
That’s really cool. Something I did not mentioned at the beginning is that this episode is one of two episodes. This is part one, part two, we’re gonna actually be talking to three of your students to try to learn more about what they thought about local government prior to the class, what they think about it now and just just see if they’re planning on getting involved, either from an elected side or volunteer or even working for local government. So I’m really looking forward to that conversation. And thank you again, for connecting me with three of your amazing students. I’ve already spoken to them once and I’m really looking forward to it.
Peter Jones 19:32
I’m excited for that too. I’ll actually know if if I had an impact, right? Like, whether they learned anything. This is this might go in my tenure file that I did this. Here’s here’s some students talking about what they learned in my class.
Alyssa Dinberg 19:43
I love that using Gov Love in both your class and in your in your tenure packet. Speaking of using Gov Love in your class, can you talk a little bit about how you used our episodes?
Peter Jones 19:54
Absolutely. So initially learned of Gov Love, Gov Love from great colleague, Dr. Aaron Bori, she is in on an episode of Gov Love. She uses the NBC sitcom Parks and Rec in her, in her classes in her MPA classes. And she and I often talk about pedagogy or things to do in the classroom, and I go to her, she’s a guru when it comes to crafting assignments and using social like, anything pop culture. So, you know, I had been in an MPA classroom for, for pretty much the entire time, I’ve been at UAB, and here I am with undergrads and I’m thinking, I don’t know, I need something pop culture wise to engage with them. And so I said, you know, I’m definitely gonna use Parks and Rec. So I use some of those episodes. And I said, but I can’t just overwhelm them with Parks and Rec, what else do you recommend, and she said, use Gov Love. They’re, they’re great podcasts, they’re fairly brief. And they stand alone, so that you don’t have to listen to the first three episodes to understand what’s going on in the fourth. So I started using them just to introduce certain types of public sector jobs. So the first one, so I used one, where someone interviewed a journalist who was talking to Ohio, essentially, leaders in Ohio working on the heroin epidemic. And I’m married that with a Netflix documentary documentary called Heroine with with an E at the end. And so they, they kind of got this great understanding about how there were street level bureaucrats, kind of the frontline workers, the EMTs, working with people who had overdosed on heroin, but then there were also public servants really at the state level, and kind of, at the public manager level, trying to figure out this policy issue, and trying to kind of put together the architecture. And so I that was great, and that I was able to kind of marry both a podcast with it with the documentary and give both sides of this kind of attacking public policy problem from from the 30,000 foot view, but also at the at the street level view. And then as I started to listen to other Gov Love podcasts, I just realized that a lot of the discussions you have on this is about paths and and how you get into public service. And so there was another great one where two people were talking about how they had started in local government, but really, were thinking about leaving local governments at some point and then eventually wound up in a public manager position and really had never pictured themselves as managers. There’s another great one from the Jefferson County here in Alabama. The the director of the Water Management District, I think, where he talked a little bit about Birmingham, and it’s kind of storied history of our, our water infrastructure, and how a lot of people went to jail about a decade ago. But he also talked about how he really never saw himself working in public in the public sector, and that he was doing contract work as a civil engineer with the government. And then all of a sudden, the county said, Hey, why don’t you come work for us? I mean, you’ve done some great projects for us as a in the private sector, why don’t you come over. And so again, students really started picking up that, oh, they could go start out working in the public or the private sector, but at some point, move over to the public sector, or they they picked up that, hey, I want to go into computer science, and hear these all these jobs in local governments that really could use those skills. So I mainly assign them as standalone episodes, just to listen, I gave pretty direct questions about for them to think about and respond to. And then towards the end of the semester, I basically opened it up, where they got to pick their episodes, they got to kind of reflect on their own and kind of take it in that direction. So so over the so I basically started pretty, pretty direct and said, you know, what’s your What are your thoughts on the differences between street level bureaucrats and these kind of higher level state state workers? In what ways do they need to work together? And what ways are they helping address the heroin epidemic? And then as the semester moved along, it really morphed into kind of more of an open ended, how will your public service career look like? or how, how has it been influenced by what you heard in this Gov Love podcast?
Alyssa Dinberg 24:40
That’s awesome. I’m really excited to learn from the students. I’m going to talk to tomorrow. Just learn what their answers were. Because those are such good prompts.
Peter Jones 24:51
I’m excited too and I think the the folks will have on there are, they’ve got they all care about so many different things and I’m so excited to hear just, you know, what, what their vision for their public service is going to be given that, you know, they might care about education policy or local government, economic development and local governments or, you know, all of those things, because I think these Gov Love podcasts, regardless of your policy area, there’s so many great little tips or, or anecdotes there that, that speak to, you know, oh, this is how I get from point A to point B, or this is how that person did it. I’m going to I’m going to take notes there, because maybe one day I’ll need, I’ll be faced in the same, with the same situation.
Alyssa Dinberg 25:41
Yeah, I think the the amazing thing about the real world education you gave to your students is, even if they choose to go down a different path career wise, they’re going to be better residents in their communities, for the rest of their lives, because they understand how things work. And they, they understand that everything is connected, and that government really does impact them. So I just, that’s amazing. And one of my passions is not only getting young people into the profession, but also getting young people engaged in the process, and knowledgeable about how things in their community work and how it impacts them.
Peter Jones 26:21
Yeah, that’s, you’re spot on about that. And, and one of the things that came, came up, as we were going through some of the the podcast episodes, was just that understanding how to engage and that in, in their minds, there’s these huge walls, and huge steps to be able to do this. They think it’s so unreachable, that they engage with local government in whatever they’re going to do. And I actually share, have them watch a John Oliver episode, Last Week Tonight, on so he’s got a great episode on medical examiners versus corners and kind of what they are and that we, we tend to elect corners and how those are different than medical examiners. And they watch a part about essentially how kind of historically some localities will elect a coroner. And there’s really no requirement to do this, you can just run anybody can run for coroner, and we talked about how for for a long time, that was kind of what had to be the case. Because, you know, it’s hard to attract people with certain backgrounds that might do well as a medical examiner, so you know, you wanted to, to elect somebody, you know, somebody had to do the job so you elected them, and they were just blown away, that they could run for corner. And this is something that they could do. And I didn’t think, you know, initially when I had them watch this episode, I didn’t think that that would be their takeaway, but it really opened this door to oh, it is reachable, I can I can run for these offices tomorrow, because I’m 18 years old. And all it all that’s required of me to run for office is to be 18. And to be a citizen in that locality. And so it just opened up this, this kind of understanding of how local government works. And that, you know, you really don’t have have to have all of this, this huge, long resume, to be eligible to do it. Now, we hope that you have, you know, the skills and the the resume to to be good at it and to, you know, win elections or work there. But certainly to be eligible for it, there’s there’s pretty low bars. And so it really opened up their eyes to just understanding that, that they can engage that they can do things that, that it’s not something that that 30 and 40 and 50 year olds are doing, that they can do it.
Alyssa Dinberg 28:47
It’s true, I hope one of them runs for coroner, I think that’d be a great outcome.
Peter Jones 28:52
Maybe the neuroscience major or, you know, someone else, I think had a criminal justice major, maybe that person I don’t know, some of the other people, I don’t know that I would vote for them as coroner.
Alyssa Dinberg 29:03
So one of the things that I’m really curious to hear from you, and I think this will really benefit a lot of our listeners is what can we as hiring managers in local government do to not only attract but retain these young people that are coming in? Yeah, you have any suggestions for us?
Peter Jones 29:25
So I would think I’ll start just recruiting wise, I think one priority that local governments should start looking at is, is getting kids and young adults meeting different folks in local government. So certainly incentivizing it for current local government workers to go out in the community, whether it be you know, giving half day, you know, paid half days to do that type of community engagement or working with local school districts to do it. And I you know, typically we would send police you know, I remember as a as a kid in school, you might meet police officers. You might meet certain elected officials or things like that. But I would also recommend sending your county clerk or someone in your your planning department. You know, folks who work, you know, as we call them, the street level bureaucrats, the folks who maintain parks or you know, work to maintain the streets, sending those folks in to engage with kids and young adults, I think, is the first step just to to kind of create a better understanding of what local government does, but just to an awareness of local government to understand that oh, there are, local government is our community. There are people here that, there are tons of people that work for local government. There are neighbors, they’re the people that you know, and there are all kinds of different jobs. Now, I know that that can be a challenge for for some local governments. And for some jobs, I’m not suggesting that you send in like, you know, folks in the budget office to talk about tax revenue forecasts to a bunch of high school sophomores. That would be a tough sell, although I think it can be done with some some, some good forethought about why, you know, of course, I do some research on this. I think tax revenue forecasts are really important. But I think, you know, soft sophomores in high school can at least appreciate, like, why it matters that we we think about government funding, and even for college students, you know, connecting them to somebody in a planning and zoning department to show some cool GIS work. Just to say, hey, if you’re interested in in computers, here’s some some really cool things that we do. I actually, one of the things that I did in this class was I made a point to bring in a diverse array of public speakers that over the 16 weeks, I had 12 different public speakers. I had elected officials, bureaucrats, nonprofit executive directors, and I tried to really run the gamut in terms of, you know, racial and gender diversity, but also political diversity, I had Republicans and Democrats, I just tried to get them as diverse a group of guest speakers. And one of our one of the people that we had visit us virtually, because everything was virtual this past semester, was a an MPA alumni of our, who, of our program. Her name is Captain Amy Shriner. She is a captain in the UAB Police Department. And so, of course, the students were interested in like, you know, what students get arrested for on campus. And she really shared with him that students for most of the time, you know, don’t get arrested, that the police department is there to help them and help them stay in school and do things like that. But she did this great presentation about how she uses GIS to pinpoint dangerous spots on campus for pedestrians. And that actually, the most dangerous spot to be at pedestrian on campus was nowhere that any of the students thought. And she was able to show that actually, UAB had made some changes to the road structure based on her work and understanding where most of the pedestrians on campus were getting hit. And you know, so for a student who’s learning GIS, or learning or taking a computer science class, instead of thinking that they can go in the private sector and do work for, you know, a health insurance agency writing algorithms, now they have a different picture of what that skill set can do that they can write a bunch of GIS program, or GIS code or work in some other computer system for local government, and that it actually has an impact that you change a road because of it. And so I think this this incentive is a you know, incentivizing local government workers to get out there, I think would just is the first step is really to make it easier for folks to thoughtfully engage with, with local government officials. I’m not suggesting you slap everybody’s phone number on a website, but for local governments to think of ways that the next generation can just engage with their local government and the people that are working there. You know, something that comes to mind is for a Parks Department to really facilitate having little league coaches lead a thank you letter campaign from the players, right this to me, it wouldn’t be that difficult, that at the end of the season, all the players get together and they write thank you letters, they put together a big poster for all of the people that kept the those fields maintained throughout the year. But that’s a lot to ask of little league coaches who are already volunteering, volunteering their time and dealing with a bunch of eight year olds. But for the parks department, I mean, really just putting the bug in the year or saying hey, the last game of the year, this is going to happen. I think for all of the local governments depart, local government departments to start thinking of ways like that.
Alyssa Dinberg 35:07
I love that that’s such a good idea. That’s so good.
Peter Jones 35:11
yeah. And I, I won’t use this as too much of a gripe, but it’s really tough to reach out to local governments. And or at least to get a person on the phone. And, you know, I understand from the local government level that you get a lot of complaints. And so you do want to kind of set up a system that that efficiently works through those those calls. But I can’t tell you how tough it is for me to call and thank people in my local government, I, my daughter Evelyn, absolutely loves going out on the porch and waving to the guys who collect our garbage and who come by on the garbage truck. And like, it makes her day because they wave back, they smile. I mean, it’s this, it’s this thing. And like she insists on getting out the door early before we walk to school, so that she can see them on on Tuesday and Friday mornings. And I tried emailing and messaging on Twitter and hitting the the city of Birmingham up on Instagram, no luck. I tried finding somebody on on the website, too, and never got a call back. And it’s just that these I mean, absolutely, I can go out and thank these guys. And I do. But these guys deserve those comments in their files for when they’re up for merit raises. And so you know that, that engagement, letting the community engage in I know, you know, we’ve set it up, because we’re worried that that engagement is not always going to be positive. But certainly setting it up so that you can foster some positive engagement just creates an awareness for young people of what local governments are doing.
Alyssa Dinberg 36:47
It’s a really good point. I know some communities have forums on their website that you can fill out to submit good comments. The city of Kansas City where I worked for two years had that, and they were read, which was really nice. But you’re right, it is it is really hard a lot of times, especially in those big communities to reach a person. It’s very hard.
Peter Jones 37:10
Yeah. And again, I recognize that there’s a budget constraint there. And when you’re trying to do all the other 1000s of things that local governments are charged with doing, you know, making sure a kid knows that their letter was received is pretty low on the priority. But But if you’re wanting, if your question is really how to engage young folks so that the next generation is excited to work in local government, is excited to serve the public, then you’ve got to bump up, you know that on your priority list as really a long term goal, or at least reaching a long term goal.
Alyssa Dinberg 37:46
Yeah, when I first moved to Denver, I’ve been here for about a year and a half. There was something I had a concern about as a resident, I don’t work for the city of Denver. And, and I obviously work in local governments, I understand the bureaucracy and the red tape and how departments are structured. And even having that knowledge, it’s still probably took me two to three weeks to get through to somebody. And that was consistently trying and trying and trying. It’s hard. But as a young person moving to a new city, like I want to be engaged. I know a lot of my friends do too. But it’s not easy.
Peter Jones 38:24
Absolutely. Absolutely. I would also say just briefly another kind of recruiting thing is as as we start to think about the next generation of public service, local governments should certainly rethink benefits and pay. And in a way, I would also argue that better publicising pay is a way to recruit. What I learned from teaching these undergraduates is that they are uniquely focused on making sure that they have a plan so that they can earn a living wage. And it’s in part you know, pressure from their parents who want to make sure that they’re going to get a good job and get some value out of the exorbitant price we charge for college. But these students have now lived through two recessions. And they might not remember the first one, but they’re seeing just how bad it is when you don’t have economic security. So thinking as a local government, really how you publicize economic security and value. And I don’t, I don’t think we really do a great job of publicizing that, yes, you can make a great wage in the private sector. But you can also make a very great, a great wage in the local government sector, and that there are all kinds of other benefits. You know, whether it be the you know, education benefits or health insurance or pensions or all of those things. I don’t know that, that that’s as publicized as to these young folks. And again, I recognize that, you know, a group of eighth graders don’t care about pension benefits. But but at the same time when they are ready to think about it, certainly having that information more accessible. More kind of out there would be would be helpful. And also rethinking you know, just what it is that you’re using to recruit folks, I know, something as simple as being proactive about qualifying for public service loan forgiveness was an easy way to recruit. To tell people, hey, come work for us. And after 10 years, you don’t have to your your $100,000 student loan bills forgiven, and we’ll make sure, we’re gonna do all the paperwork for you, and we’re gonna make sure that you’re, you’re, you’re gonna qualify this, for this is very low hanging fruit.
Alyssa Dinberg 40:37
That would be so nice.
Peter Jones 40:38
Yeah, or even better, like, hey, we’ll cover X percent of your student loan payment every month is or will give you $100 a month towards student loans, or whatever it might be. I mean, there’s a bunch of different things that I think for young people, they’re thinking about, that my generation, you know, as a 34 year old, or a 33 year old person, or even the previous generation, didn’t realize they could ask for didn’t realize was something that that was, they should consider as part of pay. I mean, I think about childcare stipends, again, I’ve got a three and one year old, and I don’t, the childcare stipend would be the biggest carrot for someone in my my stage of life to go work at a local government. Or maybe a one time bonus to buy a house, maybe even a property tax break. I mean, we offer all these tax breaks to corporations. But we could do something at a very micro level to offer that to our local, you know, to recruiting local government workers to say, hey, if you buy a house, in our city, or in this neighborhood that we’re trying to develop, we’ll give you x percent reduction or $100 rebate on your property taxes, I mean, that that, to me is some pretty cheap, relatively cheap ways to kind of up the package and make it a little bit more lucrative to go work in local government. And it’s things that again, 10, 20, 30 years ago, I don’t, I know, folks were thinking about it. But you know, when I, when you first get out on the job market, you’re just thinking, how much money am I gonna make? what’s what’s my wage going to be? And after a while, you realize that that’s not all of your income, that you have to think about these other things, too.
Alyssa Dinberg 42:24
Yeah, it’s all a good point, I think about my own work life, and all of those things would be very, very appealing to me if I were looking for a new job.
Peter Jones 42:35
Oh, absolutely. So if any local government decides to do that you can call Alyssa or me.
Alyssa Dinberg 42:40
Yes, call both of us. Definitely the filling out the paperwork for student loan forgiveness, very interested in that benefit.
Peter Jones 42:49
Just making sure I mean, obviously, if you’re working for local government, you’d qualify. But making sure that that’s taken care of, which is, you know, aside from the cost of people doing it, you know, doesn’t cost, is no more in terms of wages or benefits, so.
Alyssa Dinberg 43:05
Yeah. So you’ve talked a lot about what local governments can do to attract people. What about what the next generation of leaders is going to bring to the table? They, as you’ve mentioned previously, they’ve experienced different things that other generations haven’t experienced. They grew up in a very different world than my parents grew up in, and even honestly, a lot of what I grew up in, so what are they bringing to the table?
Peter Jones 43:34
So I think you’re spot on in that there, the last 10 years, or the last 20 years that they’ve grown up in is is pretty remarkable, and that there’s been two recessions, a pandemic, you know, we’ve seen the political landscape change. So they’ve really paid attention to all that, they see disparities, they see policy problems. And much like previous generations, they have a lot of hope and ambition, that they can affect change, you know, it’s, it’s something, then this might be another controversial non political opinion that I have. But I really feel like each generation isn’t all that different from the previous generation, that, you know, when you’re when you’re young, and you’re in high school or college, you have a lot of hope and ambition. You want to, you know, there are a lot of things that you think you can fix in the world. Now, you know, as, as each generation grows up, you know, there are different challenges that they have to face. So, again, there’s differences that way, but I think these, this generation, the public servants that are growing up now or are in their, they’re in high school or college now. They’re starting to understand that they can engage, and that there is some kind of return on serving and engaging in these policy issues. And so it seems to me at least, that they have a real passion for public service and engagement, that I’m not sure what has inspired it, whether it’s been the last decade or one of the last decades it’s been. But I had students in class that even if their major was biomedical sciences, they were thinking about down the line that they were going to work in and work for a nonprofit or volunteer for a nonprofit or do something in terms of engaging in the public, public good. I had another student who was going to go be a dentist, but she was uniquely interested in going and working in rural areas to serve those who had really bad dental needs. And so for the most part, I think they’re going to bring to the table this, this kind of passion for public service, but also this, this kind of idea that they can engage in and fix these things. And again, that’s, that’s maybe not different from other generations. But I would, to me, the passion is a little bit different. I would also say in terms of that, I mean, they’re bringing real passion to the mission and vision of local governments. And I think practically, that means local governments have to be a little a little bit more accepting of questions and, and this kind of come in and change the world type attitude. And these, to me, these, these students are going to be a little bit more resistant to this, the minutiae of local government work. They’re going to ask, Well, why are we doing it this way? I know, I’m that way. I tend to question every policy procedure or anything that that our department or college does. And I see that even more in this next generation of there, they’re just asking, Well, why? Why do we do the things that we’re doing? Isn’t, you know, isn’t that still a policy problem, so why don’t we try it a different way. And I think that we need that in local government. But certainly understanding that when you’re getting some of these, these more passionate public servants coming in, that that’s gonna be a challenge. And, and it’s a two way street too I mean, I, one of the speakers we had was, her name’s Stella Foul, and she’s, she works for Nature Preserve on the east side of Birmingham. And one of the things that she told students was that she had that passion. And but one of the things that she had learned over her four or five years working with this nature preserve is that she also needed to listen and kind of understand that a lot of those same folks that had been there 20 or 30 years, had that same passion coming in and want it and didn’t think that the way that they were handling things was the right way to do. But they learned over time that, you know, you listen, you learn that some of the minutia of local government work is that way, because that’s the best way to do it. And so setting up as a local government, that dialogue, that conversation, and not just, you know, expecting these folks to come in and fall in line is something that, that I think people should expect.
Alyssa Dinberg 48:08
I I personally am excited about this next generation coming in. I mean, I I’m only a few years into my career. And so a lot of what you said resonates with me, and I do feel that way with the work that I do. But I have sisters that are significantly younger than me, and I see everything that you’re saying in them. They do push the boundaries, and they ask questions, and, and they don’t want to do things the way we’ve always done them just for the sake of because we’ve always done it that way. And so I think a lot of our listeners agree that local government needs to evolve with the times. And I think bringing in those fresh minds and fresh eyes to innovate and, and push those boundaries is going to be really good for us.
Peter Jones 48:54
I think so. And I, you know, I’m not, I want to be clear that I’m not advocating that, you know, you let these folks come in and you blow everything up. And in terms of that, but I certainly think sitting down right now, and thinking about the structure of the dialogue. And that training folks who have been there 10, 20, or 30 years in how to listen, but also how to teach and explain, you know, really taking that extra time to say, yeah, this is this is why we did it. But I’m open to changing it is it’s something I’ve observed just from from the students that have in the MPA program is that those who have worked there for a while, I mean, generally they’re open to it, but they’re, they’ve got so many other things on their plate that you have to make it worth their while and and do it in a way that they’re gonna be able to efficiently listen and and kind of efficiently take that feedback. Yeah, and well, that and that actually reminds me of a conversation I had with some of, last week with a few local leaders in the community, we we have a workshop, a luncheon series this semester, where we’re inviting leaders from the community who represent just diverse backgrounds. So last week, we had three African American females who lead nonprofits or work in the nonprofit sector. And we had this great discussion about as executive directors and nonprofits how they were, we’re kind of approaching young folks. And one thing that really stuck with me was that they were they were observing that younger people are less likely to conform, or code switch was a term that they used, and that they were going to come in and not really conform to what the professional standards of those who that were in there, the older generation may have expected. And, in a way, this really created tension that and I conformed, you know, when I first got into academia, I wore a shirt and tie a suit or a blazer to teach in class. And because I thought, you know, that’s what professional program professors looked like, that’s what the professors I had. But now, you know, some of the younger professors are coming in, don’t conform to that. And I think that’s great. Like it does, there’s no one way professors should look. And so especially as, as these younger folks are coming in, I don’t think they’re going to be as likely to kind of conform to norms. Whether it be you know, working that nine to five, or, like, their expectations are going to be different. And there’s, they’re less likely to kind of give in and say, Oh, you expect, you know, this type of person, whether it be an African American female, or a young person, or whatever that is, this is your expectations. But that’s not my authentic self. My authentic self is this. And I’m going to, I’m going to do my job as my authentic self. And so that’s another thing that I think local governments need to start having that dialogue with current employees, but also thinking about how to set up the dialogue. Because, you know, it can be a shock to folks who have worked there for a while when they’re used to, to people acting a certain way or dressing a certain way. And all of a sudden, boom, this next generation comes that comes in and they say, No, no, this is me.
Alyssa Dinberg 52:27
Yeah, that’s a really good point. And I’m starting to see that in the work in my day to day work to people less likely to conform to, to what what you think local government is supposed to look like. Is there anything else that you want to add to the conversation? I think that that those are all the questions I had.
Peter Jones 52:51
No, I think the other things, I’ll be very curious to see what the students have to say, you know, I really tried to impart from them, or at least what I thought they took away from the class was that you, there’s no one path but in, in really creating a career for yourself that you build a network first, you get good at communicating and networking with people. And every single step that you take then builds towards that future opportunity. We had a state representative talk about how she actually interned for a congressional Alabama congressional rep in the 80s. And decided, Nope, never going into politics. She became a police officer, she was one of the first female police chiefs for her for her local police department. And then after she retired as the police chief, boom, she became a state legislator. And the people that she started working with, like, a couple of them remembered her from the 80s when she when she was there. And so she talked about like, this, this idea that, you know, when you’re built when you’re kind of crafting your career of public service, that every step you take is gonna is going to matter someday, somehow.
Alyssa Dinberg 54:15
Yeah, it’s so true. I mean, I think about everything I’ve done. And one off it may seem kind of random, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of those experiences.
Peter Jones 54:25
Right. And, and something else that struck me that that I’m curious if the students if they took it away, but it’s something that I’m going to really talk about with students later and may have reshaped a little bit of the class is that we had Congresswoman Sewell who, who represents the Birmingham area in much of the black belt in, in Congress, and she talked about how she actually started in the private sector. She She knew she wanted to work in public service her her family was really well known in Alabama. And so she knew, at some point, she wanted to serve the public. But she also knew that she had a lot of a lot of student debt. And she needed to go, you know, make money and pay off that student debt. And so she talked about how students need to, at some point have a season of service, and that they plan for the season of service, but it’s okay to work in the private sector, whether they can earn a higher wage or do something that the public sector can’t give them at the time. And but but at some point plan for a season of service that she eventually did, so she she, you know, went to an Ivy League law school, got out, paid off for law school debt, and then came back and is now serving in Congress. And I think-
Alyssa Dinberg 55:48
I love that term season of service. That’s amazing.
Peter Jones 55:50
Oh, yes, I full, full reference to Congresswoman Sewell for using that. I don’t know if that, I’m not sure if that’s hers originally, but she uses that as well. And actually, with the discussion last week with the African American female leaders, one of them referenced a season of Yes. Where you say yes, to every opportunity, and that, you, you just are going to be busy. And you’re going to do all these things. But that that’s, she may have called it a year of Yes. But that time, you’re going to be just pulling your hair because you’re gonna be so busy, but it’s going to lead to opportunities down the road, that you’ll be able to say no to if you want. But if you start out saying no, then those opportunities later don’t come. And I think about that even in my own career. My first two or three years, I said yes to everything, just because I didn’t know any better. I was the first person in my family to have a PhD. I didn’t know what you were supposed to supposed to be doing. And so I said yes to, you know, working with community groups, I said yes to different types of service things. And it has led to opportunities that I never would have thought that I’d be doing that I you know, some of them I have time for some of them I don’t. But I certainly hope that students took took away that idea was that, you know, it’s okay to, to not, to say no at times, but certainly devote yourself to a season of service, a season of Yes. Because that’s, that leads to the the career one way or another.
Alyssa Dinberg 57:27
Well, thank you for saying yes for being on this podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you. And thank you for all the work that you’re doing with with students. As I said at the beginning, you’re not only enhancing the the profession, but you’re also enhancing our community. So thank you again, and it’s been really great to talk to you.
Peter Jones 57:48
Well, thanks for having me. This was a blast.
Alyssa Dinberg 57:50
Yeah. So that ends our episode for today. Gov Love is produced by a rotating cast of amazing ELGL volunteers. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders network, you can reach us at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter @GovLovePodcast. As I mentioned earlier, this is part one of a two part series. We will be releasing another episode where I interview some of Pete’s students. So be on the lookout for that. Thank you so much for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government. That was awesome. Thanks so much.