Working with Local Government; But Not In It

Posted on November 18, 2015

Nicole Vleck leads off our new series on MPA graduates who are working outside of local government.

By Nicole Vleck (LinkedIn), Open Channels Group
I love local government.  Heck, I have spent the last decade working alongside local government staff.  But, for now, it’s not the right fit for me.
Politics at its Best
In college I studied public relations and political science. Being of the 9/11 generation (I was a senior in high school), I took an interest in politics.  I got an internship in my local Congressman’s district office, and I was hooked.  I loved the atmosphere, the pace, watching the votes, the whole she-bang.  But mostly, I loved helping with casework.  Their constituent services director, Janice, took me under her wing and taught me about the ways government officials can actually work on behalf of their constituents.  I was amazed.  In my ‘job that paid the bills (in the mall)’ one day I was speaking about my internship with a customer, and she told me she knew Janice!  Janice and the congressman had helped her son to get his driver’s license, which he was previously unable to do because of shoddy paperwork from the overseas military base he was born on. This woman’s recount of her government official helping her and her son made me want to help people the same way. I wanted to show people politics at its best, not just its worst.
The Dream Job
Jane_Nelson_Quote-01When I graduated, the congressman and his office recommended me to a local state senator to be their constituent services representative.  Every day I helped people with child support, food stamps, getting their passports, driver’s licenses, and many, many more.  Annually I handled about 400 cases and worked with about 50 state agencies. Over the years I worked for the state senator I had the opportunity work in the State Capitol during the legislative session, vet bills coming to the floor, watch and prep witnesses for hearings, and assist at campaign functions.  It was truly my dream job, and I was fearful I would never top the experience I was lucky enough to be given at age 22.
It was during this time that I pursued my MPA, so I could work at a higher level in state government.  Many of my colleagues who worked specifically in policy had MPAs, MPPs or law degrees, so I felt this was the next natural step for me to take. I pursued my MPA at the University of North Texas, due to its stellar reputation and because of its focus on managing public organizations.  I felt as I grew, I might want to do more than push policy, so I needed an education that was more holistic than an MPP.
The Private Sector
After seven years, two campaigns, and four legislative sessions, it was time for me to move and grow. For my family a move to Austin wasn’t possible, so many state agency jobs were out for me.  As I looked, I pondered what I felt my passions were, and determined I enjoyed working with the tough policy issues, but needed to work directly with the public, the way I did working in casework.  I felt my best options would be working with transportation, healthcare or maybe a grassroots education group.
Lucky for me, the network I built led me to the next phase of my career.  I was hired by a private strategic communications group, after one of the former county commissioners I worked with recruited me.  Within eight weeks, I was the Public Information Representative for a brand new privately owned toll road in the area.
I have now been in the private sector for about a year and a half, and am on a team of people working on the expansion of I-35E in Dallas, as well as the expansion of a major tollroad in the area.  In my current position, I do a lot of outreach to the public, as well as city, county, state and federal officials and staff at each level. I work very closely and hold regular meetings with staff to keep them up to date and ensure we have relationships so that if they have questions or concerns they are hearing, we can work together to solve them quickly.  Having worked for an elected official, we try to ensure they and their staffs are always up to date since I understand the calls they will get on our projects.
An MPA for Private Sector?
My MPA has been very helpful for me as a public information representative.  My job is generally to be in the know about new things like state laws and policy decisions that affect or could affect my clients. Because of the understanding I have regarding how government policy and administrative decisions are made, I am able to grasp information easily and understand it without assistance from our Government Relations Director.  I also have existing contacts with local government staffers, many of whom I went to school with.  I understand their staff positions and can cultivate those relationships for the mutual benefit of our stakeholders, governments and my employer.
One thing I do miss is the legislative component.  Some of our local cities have positions that include both intergovernmental relations and public information, which I feel may be the next step for me in a few years. Or possibly working directly with transportation legislation at the state level.  I enjoy the complexities of the funding and how the roads and bridges are built.
For MPAs who haven’t found the right fit in local government, fear not.  Our MPA is highly regarded in and out of the public sector, and will benefit you well.  Many of my co-workers and colleagues, especially in state and federal government, had MPAs (and killer benefits packages.) Any position that works alongside government, in my opinion, is a great fit for MPA alum.  Anyone looking to ‘join the dark side’ but would like advice, or just want to chitchat about the wonders of infrastructure or politics, especially in Texas, can contact me directly at [email protected].

Supplemental Reading

Open Channels Group – We Are PR

On Campus with University of North Texas MPA Program

Nicole Vleck – OCG PR

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