By Greg Stopka, Strategy and Innovation Manager, Park District of Oak Park
In 2011, I accepted the position of central region director with the Alliance for Innovation, leaving the local government world I had spent three years in previously as a budget intern and an assistant to the city administrator. Leaving what many consider the traditional route to becoming a city manager (intern to assistant to manager) could appear a detour or an exit from the local government industry, but I argue that leaving the industry whether for a non-profit, or private sector position, helps you build a network you can leverage in the rest of your career and provides you new ideas that you would otherwise never be exposed to. Combining these two experiences sets you up to re-enter local government with unique advantages that others may not have.
Leverage your Network: Free Expertise
When you start a new job, there are going to be responsibilities that already align with your skills and strengths and others that will require training and practice. One way to accelerate this curve is to rely on the network you have built up from your time outside of local government. For example, I had limited (using this term liberally) SQL skills, yet I am responsible for managing our entire dashboard system much of which runs on SQL statements. Although I was able to train myself, I’ve been able to identify existing experts in SQL from my time at the Alliance that have helped answer questions and even built queries for me (special thanks to Michelle Fernandes in Rancho Cucamonga, CA). Another advantage of your network is the opportunity to connect your new staff to other communities they may not have relationships with. Last winter, the Park District of Oak Park had an innovation exchange with Naperville to learn about their What Work Cities program data practices and to share our models. I’ve also been able to connect the Performance Team at the Park District with other local government leaders in dashboards engagement to learn new practices, benchmark, and improve our data reliability and effectiveness. Because I left local government, I’ve been able to accelerate the learning opportunities for the Park District and myself.
New Ideas: Innovation Pipeline
Innovation is the buzz amongst many in local government. City managers and councils are looking for new ideas to address the challenges arising around them. While many rely on the traditional local government associations for ideas, much innovation comes from the outside. By leaving local government, you position yourself as a leader and a disruptor of local government. Bringing your non-profit or private sector ideas could make you very appealing as a candidate who can change the game. For example, over my time at the Alliance I saw how many government models of innovation of all sizes. I was able to learn what worked and what didn’t and when I started working at the Park District I had new ideas on how to improve their program.
How to Re-Enter Local Government: Engagement and Questions
While you always have new ideas in a new position, avoid the desire to change anything in the first few months. Instead, write it down. In my case I have a white board wall where I wrote down all my ideas and initial observations (see the chaos below). It’s important that you learn more about the organization before trying to change it. Engagement is key. For example, when I held my first innovation team meeting, I had the interim chair manage every aspect of the meeting and observed the team’s reactions and how things went. After the meeting I engaged every member individually discussing what has worked well, what hasn’t and what ideas they had. In our next meeting, I built consensus around the ideas shared and then unified a vision moving forward. Because I didn’t impose my vision but instead built a holistic one that everyone bought into, we have been quite successful. We have seen more ideas implemented and more engagement across the entire organization.
Local government needs to adapt to the world as it changes and sometimes being part of the external change best prepares you to transform local government from the inside. While there are many paths to becoming a local government leader, don’t be overly committed to any one path as each one provides unique experiences and opportunities that will become part of your unique career profile. Be confident in yourself and your abilities and you’ll find your way.