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State of Local Government: Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes

Posted on October 6, 2014


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Kent Wyatt is a senior management analyst with the City of Tigard, OR and the co-founder of ELGL. He writes the Local Government Confidential and This Week in Local Government columns.

In my last article, I outlined more than 80 ways for strengthening local government. (Please tell me that you read it and memorized each of the 80 ways.) This time around, I will provide an unscientific, non-medical diagnosis on the current state of local government. I developed the diagnosis by asking attendees at a recent ELGL & ICMA event to “describe the current state of local government.” (I know, pretty fancy question with a lot of big words.) Opinions varied from it’s a “fun, exciting, yet somewhat stressed time on the local level” to “local government is doing the best they can with limited resources” to “remind me again, what’s the difference between a planner and mayor.” (Note: I made up that last quote.)

I grouped the responses into five major themes. “In transition” was the most common response and the one that will be covered below. From the “silver tsunami” impacting the workforce to the ongoing exploration of incorporating new technologies into our work, local government professionals are well aware of the ongoing and upcoming transitions.

In “Local Government” We Trust

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Citizens continue to rank local government as the level of government that they trust the most. (It must be our charming personalities and fashion forward attire.) A recent news article, Americans Still Trust Local Government More Than State, summarized results from a survey measuring the public’s trust of local and state government. The main takeaway — citizens continue (since 2001) to trust local government (72%) more than state government (62%). (Apparently, mailing ELGL stickers to every house in America was a good idea.)

Changing Demographic

Our communities are becoming older and more ethnically diverse as shown in the following numbers.

  • The portion of the population that is currently at least 65 years old—13 percent—is expected to reach about 20 percent by 2050.
  • By 2042, so-called racial minority groups will make up the majority of the U.S. population.
  • White Americans will have gone from making up 85 percent of the population to comprising 43 percent.
  • Immigration and intermarriage account for much of this change in our country’s racial makeup

Changing Workforce

2808The aging of our country brings a wave of Baby Boomers who are retiring around the same time. This “silver tsunami”, which may have been delayed temporarily due to the Great Recession, is in full gear. A Center for State and Local Government Excellence survey found that 22% of retirement-eligible employees accelerated their retirement date in 2013.

With less Baby Boomers and more Gen X’ers and Millenials working, local government will need to consider the different wants and needs of a younger generation. While ELGL vehemently opposes to generational stereotypes, we do believe each generation carries some distinct characteristics. Baby Boomers are defined as hard workers who define themselves by their professional accomplishments. Gen X and Millenials are known for being entrepreneurial-thinking and valuing a work/life balance.

Changing Technologies

imagesBeyond the walls of city hall, local governments is facing a new kind of citizen. Our citizens are most diverse, they demand new avenues to connect, and they expect to “touch and feel” their local government. Tweet Ups, crowdsourcing, See Click Fix, and online town halls are common terminology for community outreach. Local government is transitioning to new technologies.

Some, but not all of the resistance, stems from a workforce that did not grow up with Facebook and Code for America. I sent my first email as a college freshman in 2000. Recent MPAs entering the workforce have always had reliable internet and using it to connect personally and professionally since elementary. The exposure to the technology helped them attain a familiarity and comfortable level that many of us in local government do not have. A successful transition to fully using technology in local government will require an acknowledgement from all generations that we can learn from each other regardless of who is older.

The Last Word

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Below are direct quotes from a number of local government managers on their opinion of the state of local government.

Folks want their local government to be less of a behemoth that just builds roads and sewers and more of a creative agency that actually tries to solve perplexing problems. Though the use of data is emerging, I think that ultimately citizens want government to improve their quality of life rather than meet some esoteric performance target.

Depending on the size, location, type and demographics among other variables (e.g. high education opportunities, employment, transportation…) of local government, each transition can look different.  Based on the migration from rural to urban and even suburban to urban, communities are seeing an increase or decrease in their populations, which are creating new challenges such as providing adequate services, loss of taxpayer revenue, and city congestion.  

Coupled with these challenges are the employment concerns of local government to transition from the baby boomer generation to the young generation with different needs and priorities.  Furthermore, local governments must compete for the current generation of talented employees who are ambitious, entrepreneurial, and being courted by private and public organizations. How governments respond with these challenges will impact the future role of government for generations to come.

I think it is in a state of transition but remains strong as a result of outstanding local government professional management.

How will the recession morph local government resource levels? How will generational changes effect government from the organization and community viewpoint?  It is an interesting time of opportunity and uncertainty to chart a course and leave a legacy.

There is a turnover of city managers due to baby boomers retiring that is just beginning.  Communities are transitioning out of the economic slump slowly, but managers are looking to secure today and prepare for better days tomorrow.

Constant change and innovation; ripe with opportunity; data-driven; creative; an ideal workplace for MPA graduates

Full of possibilities! A time of transformation.

Local government is going through a drastic change in demographics as well as how we structure our bureaucracy in order to move into the next generation of challenges and opportunities.

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