Practical Skills for Local Government

Posted on September 18, 2020

morning buzz skills

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Kirsten Wyatt, the ELGL co-founder and executive director. Connect on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.

  • What I’m Reading: Beach Read by Emily Henry (it’s “meh.” But it’s only $1.99 in the Kindle store…)
  • What I’m Watching: The Office on Netflix (introducing our kids to it. It’s magic!)
  • What I’m Listening To: A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost (so so so good. You must listen or read.)

This year, ELGL introduced our first fellowship program, in partnership with GFOA to produce Popular Annual Financial Reports (PAFRs) for local governments. It’s been a truly uplifting experience to meet with the Fellows each week for trainings and co-working time.

A wonderful group of ELGL members (thank you, Noor Shaikh, Jennifer Rainey, Kara Roberson, and Ben Kittleson) volunteered their time to teach the Fellows about different software tools like Excel and Canva to help them complete their PAFRs. Heading into 2021, ELGL hopes to offer more of these practical learning experiences for our members because we know that when you graduate from an MPA or MPP program, it’s extremely helpful to have something tangible and “real” that you’ve worked on and not just a drive full of papers on public administration theory.

The Fellowship program has made me reflect on the practical skills that I use everyday to be a self sufficient and productive office worker. For me, these are skills that I honed very early in my career when I was working in really boring internships where I didn’t have a lot to do and the internet wasn’t really “a thing” yet. (Oh what I would have given to have TikTok the summer of 1996 when I was answering phones at a state agency office that never received any phone calls…).

I’ve found that I still use these skills today, 25 years later, and so wanted to share what I think every local government office worker should know to be productive and self sufficient, no matter if you’re in finance, planning, library, parks, or any other office-focused role.

But first: I want to weigh in on the idea that “if I don’t know how to [insert clerical skill here] I won’t get stuck in a secretary/admin role.” It’s one thing to not get pigeonholed into clerical work that is below your skill level or pay grade, but it’s quite another to willfully not gain skills that make you useful, productive, and sufficient. When someone doesn’t know how to do the skills I list below, I get annoyed because they’re not bringing practicality to a project.

And it’s not to say thatĀ you’llĀ get stuck doing these clerical tasks just because you know them, but it will help you become a better manager if you’re aware of the tools your team can use to create meaningful and efficient processes and projects.

Mail Merge

I’m not an administrative assistant but I use mail merge functionality every. single. month. in my job. Whether it’s to send out 10 emails that are personalized by name and job function, or to pull together matches for ELGL connector programs like the Mask Exchange, Mug Exchange, or Birthdays n’ Books, or countless other tasks that require taking large amounts of information and arraying it in a meaningful way, mail merge will make your work faster and more personalized.

Documents, Spreadsheets, Decks

I taught myself Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and Access that same summer I was answering phones in college by taking a series of tests that I found in a file drawer and working my way through them. Nowadays, there are a ton of online options to learn different tools and functionality but your job might not pay for them or allow you to learn them while you’re on the clock.

My expectation is that if you don’t know how to use any document, database, or presentation software is that you’ll spend your own time learning it. ELGL is looking into ways that we can bolster training and education in data analytics tools for our members because we feel that strongly about people having practical skills as well as the “dream big” visualization perspective.

Error Checks & Macros

It’s one thing to be able to build a spreadsheet but quite another to build in the checks and controls to ensure that when you’re working in a giant file of data, calculations, links, and charts that you don’t accidentally fat finger an error that can disrupt the entire spreadsheet. And so learning how to use some of the macros to automate features in Excel, and also to create error checks built into your more complex spreadsheets are critical tasks as you grow your experience working with data files.

Formatting & Styles

This is where I might lose you but hear me out: the ability to create even simple documents that use headers, white space, fonts, bullets, numbered lists, etc. is important. Again, assuming you’ll have an admin who will do this work for you will just add time to a project that needs to get into a council packed or posted online.

Getting familiar with the “styles” feature in documents, or learning your organization’s style guide and using it consistently, will make your work products more visually appealing, and more people will read them and engage with your project.

File Management & Naming Conventions

I’m clearly not a poster child for browser efficiency: at this point in time I have 17 tabs open and will definitely push 25 by the end of today. But where I expect efficiency is in the organization of shared files and in file naming.

Nothing makes me shudder more than seeing people with 97 documents saved to their desktop with (2), (3), (4), etc. following every file name. Figuring out a system that works for you to ensure that you can always find the correct file, and in a place where – if you were hit by a bus and no longer with your agency – someone else could start doing your job, is essential as you begin your career working in teams in an office setting.

Version Control & Track Changes

This may have happened to you already: you’re working on a project team and you realize that the energy and wisdom you put into a document was overwritten by another team member (or worse – you overwrote someone else’s work). Learning how to approach version control and tracking changes is important, especially as you join a new organization and are learning their conventions and software.

File naming is important in this, as well as knowing if documents are stored in the cloud, or on individual desktops or computers, or shared drives. It may not sound like much to people who have comfortably been working for years in online and cloud based programs, but at some point in a local government job, you’ll come across someone who saves everything to their desktop and being able to keep track of versions and changes will save your sanity.

Keyboard Shortcuts

This isn’t at the top of the list because it’s not the most important practical skill you can learn, but as you get more proficient in different programs, the ability to use keyboard shortcuts (control + ___ on a PC and command + ___ on a Mac) does speed up your use of those programs. And you can get really fancy and design your own keyboard shortcuts in programs you use a lot which is huge when you’re doing things like copying formats only in Excel, or formatting a 60 page report in Word.

New Programs, In General

It’s easy to get used to the programs that your organization uses – if you’re a Microsoft Office, you’ve likely gotten very used to Word and Excel and PowerPoint, for example. I challenge you to push outside of what you use everyday when you’re working on a project at home or for fun.

For example, if you volunteer with your church or your kid’s school, try using Google Docs for that project. Or if you’re in charge of a nonprofit event or some other activity, see if you can get your team to start a Slack channel. If you’ve never created a web page or published anything online, set up your own Medium page, or let me know and I can teach you how to publish to

Pushing yourself in your free time to learn new programs, in general, will keep your mind fresh and make you think about the ways you use programs at work, and whether you’re using them most efficiency.

In closing, I think this post likely revealed that I am a snob about strong clerical and computer skills. I will admit that I look down my nose at people who spend their time in graduate school or at work with their heads in the clouds and don’t get into the muck of making things happen.

I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and that not every job demands or needs some of the skills I listed above. However, I think centering on practicality and efficiency is always a good idea, which is what I wanted to share here today.

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