Bringing Local Government & The Public Together – Kirsten Wyatt (POY 30)

Bringing Local Government and the Public Together - Kirsten Wyatt (POY 30)

Kirsten Wyatt co-founded ELGL to bring government employees together and to inspire confidence in local government. Listen as she shares what motivates her.

Listen to This Episode

Episode Summary

  • Kirsten Wyatt is the Executive Director and co-founder at ELGL, a professional organization for those interested in local government.
  • Governments today face many challenges and have fallen behind in some areas, including hiring and recruiting. ELGL seeks to help those in local government bring their agencies up to date and to attract talented workers back into government.
  • Low trust in government among Americans has affected recruitment to some extent. Using direct service and education, Kirsten wants to help repair the relationships that citizens have with government.
  • Kirsten is also devoted to telling stories from government employees in the US. ELGL’s podcast, GovLove, is one of many ways the organization is helping to tell these stories.

Guest Links

ELGL

GovLove Podcast

Transcript

This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.

Monologue by Josh Morgan

Kirsten Wyatt is the Executive Director of ELGL, a professional association that engages local government leaders across the United States. She and her husband Kent co-founded ELGL near Portland, Oregon to connect people in public services roles. It’s since grown into an organization with close to a thousand members across 35 states.

What attracted me to them was their commitment to rethinking local government and what government jobs can offer jobseekers today, as well as their commitment to rebuilding trust between local governments and their constituents. ELGL is meeting all sorts of needs for those who dream of building their communities professionally, and I talked with Kirsten about how their approach is making local government more effective for everyone involved.

I’m Josh Morgan. My conversation with Kirsten is coming up next on The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people.

This is Episode 30. You can follow along if you’d like at pluralofyou.org/030.

I’ve had this lingering but sort of lazy fear that a large percentage of Americans have soured on the concept of government in recent years, but I’ve learned some good news: I’ve mostly been worried for nothing. I’ve found that American favor for government depends on what level of government we’re talking about, be it federal, state, or local.

Most of us probably know that trust in the US federal government is at an all-time low. According to the Pew Research Center, fewer than 2 in 10 Americans reported in 2015 that they would trust the federal government to quote-unquote do what is right. That’s pretty dismal. That’s the lowest trust in the federal government has been since Pew started keeping track of it back in 1958.

On the other hand, roughly 7 in 10 Americans said in 2014 they trusted their local governments, and roughly 6 in 10 said the same for their state governments—that’s according to Gallup. These vary by geography, of course, but it’s nice to know that most Americans haven’t given up entirely on the concept of government.

It’s a good thing that there’s still some confidence left because many government services are playing catch-up with advances in the rest of society. Just look at technology. Aunt Bertha, the B corporation that I featured in our last episode—they took it upon themselves to create their search engine for social services because governing agencies were nowhere close to creating anything like it, but people needed it.

Another area where governments have struggled has been with hiring and recruiting. An article from Governing Magazine in 2013 had the following to say about it:

“It’s hard for agencies to compete with the private sector for top talent when they have to freeze pay or trim benefits. Millennials who do end up in the public sector bring their own perspectives and a different set of job expectations they want employers to accommodate. At the same time, the workforce continues to experience shifting roles as nonprofits and contractors take over more tasks traditionally performed by public employees.”

In other words, governments have been struggling to keep society’s best and brightest in their ranks. I think it’s safe to assume this has had negative effects on things like government performance and the trust problem.

That’s where Kirsten and ELGL come in. ELGL provides a network where people with varying interests in public service can find one another, and it’s completely run by volunteers. Kirsten is also committed to sharing stories from people who work in local government, which I like to imagine helps governments seem more personable and more inviting. Before I forget, I wanted to mention that I discovered ELGL through their podcast titled GovLove, where Kirsten and her team interview those working in local governments from around the United States. They’ve had some fascinating guests, and I really mean that. As a side note, I highly recommend it.

I talked with Kirsten the day after she attended a professional conference in Austin, Texas. I realize that government isn’t always the most appealing topic, but I think that’s unfortunate. For every stereotype about DMV workers being tough to work with or city managers who are corrupt and play favorites, there are emergency managers working long hours on projects to take care of us or accountants who really are committed to finding the best use for our public funds.

In the end, our governments are tools, and they reflect our intentions as citizens, whether we’re passionate about participating or we neglect them with cynicism or apathy. It’s like I said earlier: I like to think that Kirsten and ELGL will help to restore our relationships with our governments going forward. Here’s Kirsten Wyatt, the Executive Director of ELGL, to talk about it.

Interview with Kirsten Wyatt

JM: If you wouldn’t mind, tell me a little about ELGL. What kind of work do you do?

KW: We are a big-tent, local government organization. Our goal is to connect, communicate, and educate about local government service.

One thing we’ve realized is that local government is siloed. It’s not uncommon for people to only have professional development opportunities in the department they’re working in. For example, city managers are part of a city managers’ association. Finance directors are part of a finance directors’ association, but there’s really no professional association for people who are generally interested in local government and urban affairs.

A lot of this is based in this idea that you’re supposed to know where you’re going in your career. That’s how professional affiliations traditionally occurred. What we realized is, if you don’t know where you’re headed but you do know you love public service, there needs to be a place for you, a place where you can learn, connect, and grow.

There’s this disturbing trend we’re seeing, that professional associations closely hold information. Training is only offered if you’re a member, conferences or networking opportunities. Government is the ultimate open-source entity, where we believe everything we do should be shareable and scaleable. We grew tired of seeing of these existing associations guard information and protect these learning opportunities.

Because there really weren’t other associations that said, “Hey, if you just care deeply about how communities are built and maintained”—my husband, Kent, and I started our own professional association. That is ELGL.

JM: Nice. How long ago was that?

KW: It’s been about six years at this point. It started very organically, bringing together some people working in local government in the Portland metro area for lunch. From there, it got a little more formalized. We would bring in guest speakers or we would have different people present on what they were working on.

At that point, the goal was just to make sure people knew each other across jurisdictions. It seems silly that, if one city was working on a franchise agreement for example, that they shouldn’t know somebody in the neighboring city that they could call up and say, “Hey, can you get me a copy of this so we can replicate it in our community?” Honestly, it was all about building better relationships.

Again, going back to the idea that there wasn’t a home or a place for all of us who wanted to think, talk, and learn about local government. We started to get people from outside of the region say, “How can we get involved?” We started to build out our social media platforms so they could take what they were learning and share it more broadly, regardless of where you worked.

JM: Before you founded ELGL with your husband, did you two have experience doing anything like this? What was your background?

KW: We met in the MPA school at the University of North Carolina.

JM: Chapel Hill?

KW: In Chapel Hill, mm-hmm. At the time, we were both going back to MPA school to become city managers. We started dating when we were working on a extraterritorial sewer line extension project. [laughs]

JM: [laughs] That always brings people together.

KW: [laughs] It really does. We both always knew and felt deeply about public service. We both knew we were going to have careers in public service. The idea of creating this startup professional association wasn’t on our radar.

What really prompted it was we had been living out in Virginia. We made one of those bets where we said, “The first person to find a job in local government, we’re going to move there.” We moved out here to Oregon and we didn’t know a soul. It puts you in a situation where you realize how important a network is, when you’re in a situation where you know no one. We did have the benefit of having each other.

Since we both work in the field, it was always nice to be able to come home and bounce ideas or questions off of somebody, share articles, share ideas. We took that idea of having a network that we had in each other and said, “You know, we can’t just do this. We need to make sure everybody has a resource like this.”

My husband always jokes, “Not everyone is lucky enough to marry a bureaucrat.” [laughs]

JM: [laughs]

KW: —Making sure to build out their own network.

JM: What would you say makes you so passionate about encouraging workers, especially young workers, to get involved in local government? What are some of the benefits over, say, business or academia, for example?

KW: The best thing about local government is making a real, visible difference in communities. Before I worked in local government, I did work at the state government level. I was the spreadsheet jockey. I was pushing numbers around, the numbers represented huge sums of money, but it wasn’t tangible. It wasn’t real.

At the local government level, the services that are provided are so critical to health and safety first and foremost. It’s about giving people clean water, toilets that flush, roads that are driveable, police officers who are ready, firefighters who respond. These are critical, core services that make our communities livable and it keeps us safe.

On top of that, local governments are also doing things that build community and make cities places that you want to live and work, things like long-range planning, things like zoning. As dry as that can be to talk about, it’s important when you think about what you want your community to look like. Providing transit, library, parks, recreation—all of those little extras that go into making a city a home, and those are all of the things you get to work on every single day when you work for a city. To me, there’s no better feeling than knowing you’re going into work and the work you’re doing is impacting all of those critical services.

I think a lot of people say they go into public service to give back, but it’s so tangible at the local level. That’s why I am passionate about talking, especially to younger people, saying, “If service is important to you, local government is an incredible way to do that.” I know some people do choose the nonprofit route for a lot of those same reasons; they love the direct service of it all.

It’s also that diversity that you get at the local level. When you work in local government, you deal with cops and librarians. I tell you they couldn’t be more different but they’re coworkers. It really is a nice way to get to see this whole breadth of services that area so critical to all of us as a civilized society.

JM: It’s interesting how so many of those services we as the public take for granted until they’re put in front of us. I imagine people that are out looking for jobs in the labor market may feel the same way until someone comes to them like you and says, “Hey, maybe you should think about local goverment.” They’re, like, “Oh, okay.” Maybe they wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise.

KW: Right. The big thing I think local government needs to do better is to remind people of that and to tell those stories. In very large organizations, especially at the county level, they’re even hiring doctors and dentists in their public health departments. In your public works department, you have engineers, you have mechanics.

The thing that I find incredible about local government is that, if you have an aptitude and you still have this passion for service, local government is a career option for you. Obviously there might be more city planner jobs because there are more cities, but that doesn’t mean if you have a calling for engineering that you have to go work for some firm. You can go work for your local city and be the one that’s designing those water mains or figuring out how to get that sewage to run downhill.

Those are things that make a huge difference, and you get to have the benefit of going home at night and knowing you’ve done some direct service.

JM: Are you aware of anyone you’ve influenced that are doing well today in their positions?

KW: Two come to mind. As I had mentioned at the start, a huge thing we try to do as a professional association is to give opportunities to everybody regardless of where they are in their career. That’s always been important to us. There tends to be a hierarchy in some of these more traditional associations that you don’t get the plum writing assignments or committee assignments until you’ve paid your dues. For us, it’s all about hard work and putting in the effort.

A good example of that was a guy named Josh. He was graduating from the University of Oregon. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do, but he thought working for a city might be interesting. What we agreed to do for him is we set him up on a series of informational interviews. We said, “After you’re done with each one, we want you to write about it.” Josh took it upon himself to go out on I want to say eight or nine informational interviews. After each one, he’d write up a summary of what he’d learned. We called the blog series “Josh’s Job Search.”

He had gone in and done an informational interview in the city of Portland with a woman who’s an ELGL member, and she was impressed with him. He’s a great guy. She did more reading and read his prior posts, and they had a temporary opening. They were instituting a new tax in Portland and they needed some temp workers to run the call lines, and she brought him in.

Recently, I found out he’s taking his licensing exam to get his accounting degree. He is committed to a career in local government finance and he’s still with the City of Portland. They have him on full-time.

JM: Good for him.

KW: Yeah. To me, again, it goes back to this willingness to work hard and learn new things. We never say no to anybody who wants to get involved with our group. We try to have that opportunity.

JM: What was the second story?

KW: One of our members out of our Chicago chapter, she had formally been a Chicago Tribune reporter. Like a lot of reporters are doing these days, she made the jump to local government and was working as a PIO for a small Chicago suburb. She was doing great and getting really involved with ELGL. Through that, she immediately found a network of people who she could talk to and bounce ideas off of. At this point, Kent and I hadn’t even met her in person—her name’s Bridgette.

It was this incredible phenomenon that we get to experience in this day and age where you can form relationships with people through social media. I never say that replaces honest-to-goodness, face-to-face communication, but especialy for professional networking, it does definitely fill that gap.

Anyway, she was approached by a private company to come and do in-house marketing for a food products company. It was for a lot more money. She had that moment where she was able to look at her career and what she wanted, and she was able to look at the network she had been able to build across the country through her ELGL connections. She turned the job down, has gone on, and is now the Director of Community Services for a pretty big city up in Michigan. I’m really proud of her.

Again, I think sometimes what we had been seeing happen is getting lured away by money and the private sector. For us, it’s important for us to build a network that keeps people in local government. I think one thing we’ve found is the more people you know, the bigger your network, the more secure your network, it’s more likely that you’re going to want to stay in the field. It can get tough, and if you have people to commiserate with or share ideas with, you’re going to stay. That’s what we need is to keep talent in local government.

JM: I noticed ELGL has several different branches across the country. It sounds like having those branches helps maintain that network that you just mentioned. How do you keep all of that coordinated?

KW: We use Slack, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with Slack but it’s an online messaging tool. We just rely on a network of really hard-working, dedicated volunteers.

When someone wants to get more involved, we gauge that level of interest and say, “We’ll give you an opportunity and we’ll make it fit for whatever you want right now.” For some people, that’s writing a monthly column. For others, it’s heading up and organizing those regional chapters. It comes down to this group of people who are doing incredible things, and have just shown a willingness to jump in and get the experience you can get through a professional association. Some organizations, you have a job and that’s the job you do, [but] if you want to advance, you want to gain some skills outside of that job description.

Another example, we’re starting a new series where we are going to have an intern interview people who are retiring from local government. We’re going to compile their stories into an ebook so we don’t lose that institutional knowledge. We’re going to have one of our management team members who’s based out of Durham supervise that intern. He’s not currently in a job where he gets a chance to supervise people but this will give him a sneak peak of what it’s like to manage people, which will help his résumé.

JM: That sounds excellent.

KW: Yeah! We try to work with each of our management team member to say, “What do you need to grow?”

We had an example a couple of weeks ago. One of our management team members in Minnesota presented at her first professional conference, and that’s huge. She can put that on her résumé. She did such a great job that I wouldn’t be surprised if she was invited back to their conference.

For us, as a professional organization, the least you can do is help people build up professional résumés, and we strive really hard to make that happen.

JM: Nice. I’m glad to hear that. That sounds like a good approach.

It seems these days that confidence in government at large at all levels is at an all-time low, or at least a recorded low. Is that a problem for the recruiting process?

KW: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s the lack of confidence or a distrust in government. It’s also a perception that government can be inefficient, boring, or slow.

Another thing we’ve tried to do through ELGL is to remind people that working in government is fun. It’s creative and innovative, even when it gets tedious and bureaucratic. This is a network you can look to to celebrate the good stuff. Study after study shows that, even as American sentiment toward government goes down, local government of the three levels of government is usually the top ranked.

I attribute that back to that level of direct service you’re providing. Even though I think people don’t always correlate the librarian that they see helping their kids during story time as a local government employee, local government is much more in your face. It’s not an abstract, NBC Nightly News story or a screaming presidential candidate during a debate. It really is in your home town. They’re people you see in the supermarket, it’s people you see at Rotary Club.

The personalization of local government, I think, keeps things a little more civil, but it also at the same time makes it sometimes challenging when there is dissent or when there is disagreement because it is so in your face. It really is about learning to balance the fact that you get to have this direct impact but sometimes it also means you’re in the grocery store, you’re trying to grab dinner and get home, and someone’s yakking your ear off about the street light burned out in front of their house. It’s all about trade-offs.

I really believe, too, that it comes down to trust. Ultimately, I think societies are becoming distrustful of large institutions. Another thing I really want ELGL to do is to help our members find ways to rebuild that trust in their communities because it needs to start somewhere. It’s certainly not starting at the presidential level right now.

JM: Just listening to what you’re saying, it sounds like maybe there are two solutions: customer service on the local government side and, maybe for everyone, education. In saying that, I’m not sure where we would begin to educate people to maybe be more understanding or patient with local government. Do you have any insight into how we can rebuild that confidence?

KW: When I was at that conference yesterday down in Austin, it was a presentation from, I think, Accenture. Their public consulting group had done a survey about what percentage of Americans expect local government digital services to be equivalent to private sector digital services. The number was astounding: it was like 85 percent. People have high expectations for their government.

I think one thing we need to do as government officials is understand people have high expectations. Maybe this idea of “It’s good enough for government” and those types of attitudes—people are wanting to see local government rise to the challenge. They want to see local government have the same level of professionalism and competence that they expect from any of their other service providers.

I think sometimes we haven’t given ourselves enough credit and haven’t trained ourselves up to the point where we’re saying, “Yeah, we’re going to run this place. It’s going to have the same level of customer responsiveness as your local bookstore” or whatever comparison you want that to be. That’s another thing we’re starting to think more and work more on.

I think the rise of civic technology is a really interesting trend that a lot of our members are jumping on board with; the idea of using some different tools to gather information, track the data behind the work that local government does, and then use that to make better decisions is really fascinating. We’re starting to see local governments adopt customer response management tools so they’re able to track the issues that are coming to the local government—using things like mapping those requests onto maps and finding out where there tends to be trends as it relates to potholes, nuisance complaints, or things like dogs barking.

It’s using that rise of technology to show people that we’re listening, we’re responding, we’re not sitting back and waiting for someone to tell us what to do.

JM: That reminds me about what you were saying earlier about social media. You use it very effectively, and it sounds like that could be a tool local governments could use to help encourage participation and rebuild that trust like you meant.

KW: It is. We’re still seeing a lot of organizations that are fearful of social media.

I think, as you probably have heard, social media should be a conversation. Often in more traditional local governments, they want to push information out there and have people take it in. This idea of having a two-way conversation or of being responsive 24/7/365 through a Twitter feed, a Facebook feed, or any of these other civic tech tools—it’s a little daunting for people.

We’ve seen some reluctance, but we’re trying to break down those barriers and show the people the value that social media can bring. Sometimes that’s as easy as saying, “Here’s a sample social media policy. You don’t have to go out and write one from scratch. It’s pretty straightforward, and by the way, half of your employees are on social media all day long, anyway. They know how to use it. You don’t have to hire somebody different to run your programs.”

There still is some reluctance. I think that comes back to the idea that we used to have a method where we’d post a notice on a public bulletin board and that’s how we communicated with the public. These tools are making it a two-way communication and that’s a very different way of doing business for some people.

JM: If anyone listening would want to get involved in the type of work you do, your cause, or even with your organization, what would be the best way to do that?

KW: We welcome anyone and everyone. A lot of associations don’t want someone from the private sector getting involved, but one thing we’re realizing is government is becoming more dependent on our private sector partners to find solutions to some of the big problems we’re facing.

Membership is open to anybody. Membership is $30 a year, and that covers our adminstrative costs. What we typically do is, when someone signs up to be a member at elgl.org, we get in touch. They do a new member questionnaire, then we get in touch with them personally and say, “Okay, what can we do for you? What do you want out of your membership?”

For some people, they want to stay involved and want to be on our mailing list; they have a lot going on and that’s all they need. For other people, they say, “Okay, I want to be on your conference planning committee” or “I want to do some regular writing for you.” We make those things happen. We’re starting more projects, longer range projects. I mentioned the one where we’re going to interview retiring local government employees.

We’re also doing some work around getting more women and people of color into public service careers. The statistic is 13 percent of city managers are women. That number is low and that number is appalling. What’s really bad is that number hasn’t changed in thirty years. We’re trying to do more to raise awareness, and to make sure that we help build up the résumés and the confidence of women who have wondered ‘Is this a career for me?’

I’ll tell you: when you go to a local government conference and you’re not an older, white man, it is obvious you are not the norm.

JM: If we wanted to follow you on social media, where would be the best place to do that?

KW: We’re on Twitter @elgl50. We’re on Facebook at elglnetwork. We’re also on Instagram and Pinterest at elgl50. Our website is the best place to start, and that’s elgl.org. From there, you can access our podcast. Every Tuesday we post a long list of local government jobs from all over the country that’s available for our members. We also do a weekly newsletter on Wednesday that’s delivered to your email inbox, if you sign up.

JM: Very busy organization. Wow! [laughs]

KW: It’s very exciting. We’re growing by leaps and bounds. I’m really proud of everything our management team is doing because they’re coming up with great ideas. They’re the type of people that don’t just come up with ideas, but they make them happen. It’s a lot of stuff to be proud of.

JM: I’m happy to hear that.

KW: Thank you.

JM: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to talk about?

KW: I think the main thing is back to the point we were talking about earlier. There’s really a place for anyone and any aptitude in local government. I would hope that, if your listeners are hearing this and they think, ‘I’ve always wanted to do something more mission driven or I’m interested in direct service,’ I would bet there’s a job out there in local government for them. It really is an incredible way to affect your local community and to make a difference.

I would encourage anyone listening to check into the local job board for your city or your county. It’s a career you can be proud of.

JM: Okay, sounds great.

KW: Wonderful. It’s great to meet you, Josh. Thank you.

JM: You, too. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

KW: No problem. Talk to you soon.

Conclusion by Josh Morgan

What did you think of this episode? What did you think about what Kirsten said or the issues we discussed? Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter at pluralofyou and let me know, or contact me via the website at pluralofyou.org. I really would like to hear from you, so if you have any thoughts in mind, let me know. You can also check the website to find show notes, past episodes, or to get involved in lots of helpful causes.

The Plural of You is produced by me, Josh Morgan, in sunny Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.

If you liked my talk with Kirsten, check out Episode 5 with David Lopez. David is an award-winning librarian from Santa Ana, California. We talked about how he and others are working in the city’s government to make their library system a hub of community resources. You can find my talk with David at pluralofyou.org/005.

In closing, here’s a homework assignment.

Look up your local government agencies, city councilpersons, or county representatives on social media and follow them. Many have email lists you can request to sign up for. Even better than that, sit in on the occasional meeting. City councils in the US, for instance, often hold meetings on Monday or Tuesday evenings. Yes, it’s tough to devote time to what our local governments are up to, but it’s up to us to encourage our representatives to be more transparent and worthy of our trust. That only comes by us getting involved.

That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.