Should I Stay or Should I Go? My Decision to Leave the Public Sector

Posted on November 1, 2023

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to by Ann Marie Townshend, professional planner and former city manager. Connect with Ann Marie on LinkedIn.

What I’m Watching: Hallmark Christmas Movies

What I’m Reading: Just finished The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Today I begin my private sector career. After 27 years in public agencies, 17 of which were in local government, I made the difficult decision to go back to my planning roots and enter the world of consulting. I am excited about the challenges ahead and particularly excited to work for a small, woman-owned consulting firm where I will work primarily with public sector clients on projects that will benefit communities. This new role will allow me to serve the public good without the factors that were pushing me toward burnout. 

In this Morning Buzz, I will focus on the factors that made me reconsider my career path, especially when just a few years ago I couldn’t imagine a career outside of local government. 

Local government is closest to the people. I have always loved that I could see the effects and results of my work on the people I serve every day. Whether it was helping to craft an ordinance to address a problem or making sure somebody’s trash was picked up, I knew every day that I helped make people’s lives better. Unfortunately, in a time of great division that seems to have trickled down to every aspect of governance, this closeness to the people cuts both ways. As a city manager (or planning director), it is easy to become the object of public discontent. Working long hours and pouring my heart and soul into what I do became exhausting, and enduring relentless criticism from a handful of unhappy residents pushes the exhaustion to fatigue. 

Politics stinks! I am very glad that the two local governments I have worked for have non-partisan councils. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that there is no politics; it just means that the politics is not based on partisan or ideological leanings. As our national politics have become more divisive, so too have our local disagreements. I am very glad that I have helped navigate our way to middle ground solutions involving compromise and often better outcomes. But it is exhausting work. 

Ultimately, my decision to leave local government involved a change in council, a lot of family discussion, and a focus on what I want out of the rest of my career. I reached the point where staying would have meant constant conflict which ultimately would not have been good for me or the community. In having a discussion with my family about my options, my 23-year-old son said, “Mom, I think you have dedicated enough of your life to public service.” This from the young adult whose mother missed his sixth birthday because of a planning commission meeting. I realized that my years of evenings out, 24/7 on-call had taken its toll not only on me but on my family.  

Fortunately, I found a consulting job that will allow me to continue to serve the public through working with public sector partners to plan and develop projects to improve communities. 

Local government work is rewarding, but it is also all-consuming. For the last 17 years, my personal identity has been intertwined with my professional identity. As I start this new chapter, I look forward to engaging with communities to help them address their challenges. I also look forward to pursuing hobbies and other interests that the demands of municipal management haven’t allowed for. I am excited for new challenges ahead and the opportunity to continue my professional growth. 

For those of you who continue to dedicate your careers to local government service, keep up the good work. Your professionalism and dedication make our communities stronger. I look forward to working alongside you.

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