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Attracting the Next Generation to a Career in Local Government

A future in public service?

At this stage in my career, I am lucky enough to find myself the mom of two teen-aged boys who are just on the cusp of figuring out what they might want to do with the rest of their lives.  Lately, I’ve been pondering the question, “Would I recommend a career in local government for my sons?”

When I was just out of college, my interests were eclectic, but I was determined to lead a life where I could make a difference. I wanted a career where I could spend my energies improving the public realm – helping citizens achieve their aspirations for their community, creating neighborhood gathering places, and renewing historic spaces. I had (and still have) a passion for solving problems, not from any particular ideological perspective, but with an interest in forging solutions that work.

Nowadays, young people interested in these ideas are more likely drawn to the non-profit sector than they are to local government.  And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  For young people especially, there have been more new job opportunities in the non-profit sector than in local government.  But that will be changing as more local government professionals reach retirement age.  In Washington State, the average state and local government worker is 47 years old, versus 39 years old for private sector workers (Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2010).  A new generation of local  leadership is beginning to step forward.

So, will local government be able to attract the best and brightest to public service in the future? Well, survey research from the Pew Research Center reveals cause for concern. The public’s perception of local government is declining—though not nearly as precipitously as their view of the federal government.  Still, the favorability rating of local government has dropped from a 67% favorable rating in 2002 to a 61% favorable rating in 2012.  A 2012 survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence identified the “Public perception of government workers” as the top workforce issue for state and local governments.  Citizen ire over public employee compensation and retirement benefits is a case in point.  It makes you wonder whether the connection between public service and the public itself has become irreparably frayed.

What do people want from their government?  Well, the lack of a clear answer to this question may be at the root of the problem.  Much as we dislike the gridlock in Washington, DC, it is indicative of an ongoing, divisive debate over the appropriate role and scope of government.  At the local level, the character of the discourse tends to be healthier.  Still, we simply do not have a consensus on local government’s role in promoting economic development; protecting the environment; prioritizing walking, biking, and transit as transportation modes; or providing social services.

Higher Expectations, Lower Levels of Trust

Of course, this debate has been going on since the early years of the Republic when Thomas Jefferson characterized federal government investment in the Erie Canal as nothing short of madness.  What’s different now?  Citizens’ expectations for service have never been higher, while at the same time their level of trust in government is at an historic low.  Couple that with the impacts of the Great Recession on local government budgets and it’s no wonder you may be feeling stressed out.

In this age of instant information, we are being held to a higher standard.  The public is used to having immediate access to service via the web, and they want the same convenience in accessing local government services.  The standards for training, expertise, and professionalism of our public safety officers are much higher than in the past.  These expectations are pushing local governments to improve while having fewer resources available to do so.

And local governments are innovating to meet emerging needs.  Most visitors to the local city hall or county courthouse would be impressed with the dedication, customer service, and attention to ethics that they would witness.  So, how do local governments regain the levels of trust that they have traditionally enjoyed?  Part of the answer is in finding better ways to communicate honestly and forthrightly about the challenges that we face.

The good news is that when local governments are successful in telling their stories, they can usually count on public support.  This past fall, in the depths of the recession, 62% of local government funding measures that were on the ballot passed.  The keys to success were local government’s ability to:

  • Articulate a clear problem statement
  • Communicate a specific, effective solution to the problem
  • Have a concrete plan for implementing the solution
  • Educate the community to garner support for the solution

People are looking for transparency, accountability, responsiveness, and integrity in government.  They want to be confident that they are getting a good return on their investment of tax dollars.  And it’s at the local level that government is held most accountable – where citizens are closest to their elected officials and the decisions are made that have an immediate impact on daily lives.  That’s why I chose local government and it’s where we are making a difference.

I’m more determined than ever to making the path easier for young people who want to enter into public service.  For me, this means mentoring, supporting AWC’s Center for Quality Communities, and helping local governments connect with their citizens.  So, even though my sons now swear that they have no intention of following in their mom’s footsteps, I would certainly be proud if they decided to pursue a career in local government.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Tracy Burrows

About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.