In our recent “Quick Take” series, Julia Novak was the runaway winner of the person named “mentor” by the most people. She’s impacted all functions of local government throughout the country. Naturally we decided to catch up with Julie to discuss her view on the state of local government and to learn from her past accomplishments.
Julia Novak (LinkedIn, Twitter, and World Wide Web) has more than 20 years’ experience working with and for local governments. She is a consultant, trainer and facilitator who has worked with many organizations and community groups. From 2003 to 2009, she served as a vice president for a consulting firm that specializes in working with local governments. In September 2009, she established The Novak Consulting Group after acquiring Public Management Partners.
Julia earned a bachelor’s degree in government and politics from George Mason University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Kansas.
(Complete the sentence) Today is……Wednesday
Fairfax, Virginia – George Mason University
(Complete these phrases) Best thing about the….
80’s was……. Graduations and marriages (1982 HS, 1986 BA, 1987 Wedding, 1988 MPA)
90’s was…… Birth of my children
00’s was….. Becoming a City Manager…and then really finding myself as a consultant!
Last year was….. my son graduated from high school, watching the kid that never left home be happy and engaged in college is an ongoing joy.
Today is….I woke up in my own bed (unusual for a Wednesday, and I spend more nights on the road than I do at home)
Give us your dream line up of bands that would play at your retirement party.
My daughter is a vocalist, so the only bands I would want would have her as the lead singer: Madelaine Novak – and if my son was the lead guitarist, that would make it even better. So I call it Madelaine and My Brothers Band (a mom can dream…); Jack could open with some classical guitar pieces, then they could do some acoustic duets before the full band comes on and they rock everyone’s socks off.
(Complete the sentence) Tomorrow is…….going to be so much fun! (I’ll be facilitating a group of 100+ as they dream about the future of their community…doesn’t that sound like fun!)
Q & A with Julie
Tell us about three projects that you are working on or have recently completed.
Midland: Exploring the Future – this is a large community based strategic planning project we are facilitating in Midland, Michigan. Over 100 community members are participating and the project has been funded by city and county, government, local corporations and community foundations – it is an excellent example of modern day barn raising – building community and dreaming about the future.
Cleveland Heights, Ohio – Strategic Operations Review – this project is a City-wide organization review for a first ring Cleveland suburb – it is a dynamic and diverse community that has energetic new leadership (CM Tanisha Briley) and we are excited to develop a work plan that will guide this City into the future. If I was moving to the Cleveland area, I’d want to live in Cleveland Heights!
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is the poster child for fiscally distressed communities. We have been working for the Commonwealth of PA since 2011 as part of a team that is restoring fiscal health and community self governance (following a state takeover) to the Capital City. From the brink of bankruptcy in 2011, the City just made its GO Bond payment two weeks early.
Based on your recent work and your other observations, describe the current state of local government.
The “state” of local government varies widely across the country. When you work in the array of communities that we work in (from fiscally distressed Pennsylvania communities, to cutting edge places like Fort Collins, Boulder and Palo Alto) you see quite a spectrum. I would say, however, the state of local government is BEST where there is professional management and where there is a climate of respect among elected officials and between elected officials and the staff. Incivility is a real threat…
To this point in your career, what are the three accomplishments that you are most proud of?
Three high points…
Early in my career I was part of a team of people (assigned as the City’s representative) that planned (for years) for Thomas Sutherland to “come home” – he was a Fort Collins, CO resident who was kidnapped while serving as the Dean of Agriculture at American University in Beruit. His daughters were part of the planning team – we met faithfully for several years and when he WAS released seeing that homecoming come together was amazing…I’ll never forget it.
The Lincoln Park Bridge in Rockville, Maryland was a source of community discontent for decades – it symbolized racism and segregation as it cut off a historically black community from the rest of the City when Metro was built in the 1970’s. We had a chance to “redesign” that bridge and did extensive community engagement and involvement – people who didn’t want the City to spend a dime on that ugly bridge, were truly reconciled with the community and its leadership – and now the bridge looks much better, but more importantly, relationships were healed.
The other “accomplishments” are not “things” I worked on, but people I worked with. I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to see people I hired as interns or entry level analysts make their own way in this profession.
Former ICMA President Bonnie Svrcek challenged members to do “just one thing.” Playing off that call, what is “one thing” or a couple of things that local government staff can do to strengthen the state of local government?
Look for yes and model civility! I believe civility is nurtured when there is engagement at all times – government works best when communities are engaged with residents all the time, not just when something (bad) may happen in their neighborhood. Civility is important INSIDE an organization too – creating a culture of respect is key. If respect doesn’t exist within an organization it will not exist between the organization and the people you serve.
If we’re interviewing for a job and you’re on the interview panel, what are three ways that we can leave a positive impression?
- Show me you did your homework – that you know about the community and you know about the people who are interviewing you.
- Be able to clearly articulate your strengths and weaknesses and how you manage them (I find it amazing when people are surprised by this question…it’s going to get asked, know yourself).
- Somehow in your answer you demonstrate empathy – you show me how you had to understand other people, that you have the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – your ability to be human and empathize with others is something I am looking for!
Talk about The Novak Consulting Group. Give us the most common scenarios in which our organizations might need to work with Novak.
TNCG is made up of former local government professionals – we are all practitioners – who love local government and we are very focused on our mission: to improve organizations for those they serve and those that work in them. We believe you cannot improve service without paying attention to the working environment of the people in an organization, so with every engagement we keep in mind that we are there to help this organization get better – inside and out!
We have three main practices at TNCG:
Organizational Assessment and Optimization: within this category people hire us for one of three reasons
- You need to save money – what efficiencies can we find – whether it is optimizing patrol staffing in police or process improvements – we can help you make sense of cutbacks
- Something has “happened” and you need to demonstrate to the community or Council that it won’t happen again…
- You just want to get better – our favorite reason to get hired J and this still could involve identifying efficiencies, as well as best practices and other operational improvements
Executive Search: Our search practice is one of the fastest areas of growth for TNCG – we have done searches for Managers, Department Heads and Assistant Directors – from Oregon to Delaware – so that’s nation wide.
Strategic Planning and Facilitation: We work with A LOT of governing bodies and management teams – do teambuilding , strategic planning annual goal setting, etc. and we also do strategic planning projects for entire communities or a single department.
You interact with a wide spectrum of local governments. From those experiences, have you noticed local government is stronger or more professional in certain areas of the country?
There are absolutely regional differences in the “form” or structure of local governments, taxing structures and history/tradition, but I would not say any one region is “more professional” than another. Certainly Virginia and North Carolina have the strongest tradition of “professional” management – and yet in New England, I see Managers work with 200 elected officials (Town Meeting still exists) and this requires a whole different skill set and level of professional challenge. In the Midwest we have stereotypically good work ethics and in Colorado and the West I see newer cities (under 100 years old in many cases) that only know “professional” local government. Every region has its own unique “thing” but none is inherently better than the other, at least in my opinion…
What question(s) should we have asked?
Why did I leave local government?
You see, I didn’t, I never left…rather than working with one City all the time, I now get to work with 20 or more a year. I love local government, it’s my passion and my profession, I just do it a little bit differently now.