Stay on TOP: Recruiting Young Talent

Posted on June 28, 2016

Editors note:  Welcome to the first installment of a new blog series from Seneca Systems CEO Chris Maddox.  You might remember him from other ELGL webinars and posts such as “4 Most Egregious Issues in Local Government Software Purchasing” and “Rewind: The 4-1-1 on Slack“.  In this series he will be exploring how startups and local governments are similar and ways that they can learn from each other to become better organizations in general.  Enjoy!

By Chris Maddox, CEO, Seneca Systems – LinkedIn and Twitter

Talented, passionate, and empathetic employees are the single largest driver of positive change. This is especially true in local governments, where small teams mean individuals can have an outsized impact. Traditionally, local governments have had trouble attracting young talent. This has undoubtedly lead to a lack of intellectual and cultural diversity, resulting in a less representative democracy.

While building a strong culture takes time, there are three keys to hiring stellar young talent:

  • Transparency
  • Opportunity
  • Purpose

These appeal particularly to younger generations, whose career aspirations transcend salary or prestige. Luckily, local government is uniquely positioned to provide all three.


Transparency, in motives, decision making, and action, is the opposite of politics. Government is renowned for internal politics and lacking a culture of results-oriented decision making.

On the other hand, no organization is better positioned for a culture of transparency. Local governments directly serve their communities, and constituents and public servants alike stand only to benefit from greater transparency.

Let’s start by injecting clarity, honesty, and accountability into your hiring process.

Job Description

Transparency starts with the job description. At a minimum, you should describe:

  • What the employee would do day-to-day — Be honest; setting expectations unreasonably high is a perfect recipe for disgruntled employees long-term.
  • Salary — Treat the applicant like an adult and give them salary information up front. Don’t be worried if you can’t compete with larger organizations; no one gets into local government to be rich.
  • Impact — If they are successful in their role, what does that mean for the city/county/community? Sometimes an easier way of answering this (to yourself) is to ask the reverse: if no one takes this job, what bad things happen?
  • Team Goals — What does success look like for their team and/or department? How does their role fit into that vision? In small governments in particular, employees may be the only one in their specific role. Understanding how their work contributes to the team’s success not only builds a sense of common purpose, but helps them understand if what needs to get done aligns with what they enjoy working on.

The Interview

I’ll cover interviewing in a subsequent post, but the most important part is answering the candidate’s questions directly.

The worst way to lose a candidate: when they disqualify themselves from the job because they have unanswered questions or incorrect assumptions.

On the Job: Success, Failure, and Everything in Between

  • Celebrate success — Self-explanatory, but important to note nonetheless. Celebrate small wins starting on day one. It may be your 768th constituent request, but they’re going to remember their first.
  • Acknowledge failures — Immanuel Kant wrote, “out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be built.” He meant that we, as humans, are imperfect. Hiding failures does not make them go away or mean employees won’t notice. Own up to mistakes.
  • Set clear goals — Whenever possible, strive for objective metrics. Instead of saying, “We want to provide better constituent services,” try to quantify how you can do that. Set concrete goals, like reducing the time it takes to resolve requests or how many back-and-forth emails between the initial service request and its resolution.


A critical part of retaining employees is to recognize and encourage their professional growth. While no 20-year-old will come in as city manager, they may have aspirations to be. The twin arts of mastery and autonomy, which we’ll touch on below, are the foundation of that professional growth.

Specific to local governments, there are near-infinite opportunities for passionate individuals to own initiatives and make a positive impact. Communities universally have far more problems than human capital to solve them. That’s the perfect environment for a young, enthusiastic public servant to make their mark.


Mastery is developing an individual’s craft, which varies by role. Communications staff may work on their writing skills or learning how to engage reporters, while a public works employee may need training on state-mandated maintenance regulations. Regardless of the role, the fundamentals of mastery are the same: stagnation is the enemy of retention.

Opportunities for mastery can be both internal, like mentorship, and external, like conferences. 


Autonomy is an individual’s ability to operate independently. At the beginning of someone’s career, they’ll naturally need consistent direction and supervision. Of course, no one likes feeling fully reliant on others.

Providing opportunities for autonomy, and knowing when to in particular, can be tricky. Like toddlers learning how to walk, expect early failures.

But that’s how we grow.

And as we say in startups, if we’re not growing, we’re dying.


“[Snapchat] is about communicating with the full range of human emotion—not just what appears to be pretty or perfect.” — Evan Spiegel, Snapchat CEO

If 15 second videos and emojis communicate the full range of human emotion, we have bigger problems. Of course, they aren’t, and Snapchat’s mission statement is mostly marketing fluff. The app is a distraction; a delightful distraction, but certainly not adding much substance to society.

Local government, on the other hand, has the opposite problem: genuine depth and poor branding. Which is great! Now we just have to tell that story, empathizing with the hearts of millennials.

Define Your Mission

Every local government department exists to serve constituents. Every employee should be able to say, in one sentence, how your (collective, team) work contributes to that objective. It’s best to encapsulate that in a mission statement.

When speaking with prospective candidates and the public, talk openly about your team’s mission and how you are working towards it.

Emphasize Your Impact

It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day work and lose sight of the forest for the trees. When speaking with candidates, emphasize the effect of your work over the minutiae of what got done. For example, installing 20 new crossing signals is not a goal. The real goal is reducing pedestrian deaths at crossings. Saving lives is the impact, while crossing signals are merely the nuts-and-bolts of how you get there.   

Naturally, there are many more parts of recruiting and building a strong culture. In the next post, I’ll talk about the interview process. If you have questions or topics you’d like to see covered, please reach out on twitter or send me an email at

Close window