For Release Sunday, August 7, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group
A perfect storm, triggered by shortages of dollars and skilled personnel, faces the city and county governments of America. But a small, promising flame of reform has been lit. Its aim is to draw in highly skilled young college graduates on a “Teach for America”-like formula.
For local governments, the personnel crisis has been building for years. Cities perform vital services that impact citizens daily, from public safety to clean water to safe streets. Yet they face an avalanche of retirements among the many professionals who joined their workforces from the ‘60s and ‘70s. And among skilled young college graduates, there’s generally little interest in succeeding them; typically young people associate local public service with being a politician or getting stuck in an inflexible bureaucracy.
On top of all that, today’s recession-impacted economy is inflicting dramatic budget cuts on local governments. Thousands of posts are going unfilled. A major talent gap is opening, even while public service is demonized by the anti-government rhetoric thrown up by Tea Party-like extremists.
Enter the City Hall Fellows program, led by Bethany Rubin Henderson. In the early ‘90s, freshly out of college. she joined New York City’s Urban Fellows Program, which places its participants at an array of city agencies. She ended up being part of a five-member team reporting to the commissioner of New York’s Department of Information Technology on how the city could best use the Internet, then in its infancy.
“I’m 21 and getting to work on this high impact, important stuff,” Henderson recalls. “It totally changed my perspective on what level of government is important. I’d always thought it was Washington. But now I learned how close city government is to the people it serves — and how few people my age were involved in it.”
It took close to a decade, but in 2008 Henderson took the leap to take the city fellows idea national. She put together a concept paper, e-mailed a dozen different cities, “knocking on lots of doors” and quite quickly had San Francisco and Houston committed.
Today, with Baton Rouge added to its list and actively seeking more municipalities to sign up, City Hall Fellows operates as a full-fledged non-profit positioned to make a difference for local governments nationwide.
Each city is supplied with a coterie of motivated and talented recent college graduates who otherwise might reject local government altogether. They’re selected through a highly competitive process and take part in an intensive 12-month program working in a mayor’s office, for a city council, police or housing or other department. They get to function as full-time staff members assigned to special projects, paid modest city salaries.
With intense weekly training sessions complementing their official work, they’re instructed on the real-life politics of their host city — not just theory, but the realities of day-to-day operations — for example, the role of key influencers including the city’s business, activist and non-profit communities.
The fellows, notes Donna Kotake, San Francisco’s workforce development director, gain new understanding of local government’s dynamics and impact on peoples’ lives. Key for the city, they use their skills to “produce some great projects and reports for us, that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”
For example, Adeel Iqbal, who’d been editor of the Daily Californian at the University of California-Berkeley, helped San Francisco’s Department of Public Works streamline and improve customer service with a focus on revamping the agency’s 311 system for citizens’ complaints and comments.
Also in San Francisco, Brown University graduate Jessica Huey helped lead a citywide Civil Service reform effort. And after her fellowship ended, she took a permanent job with the city’s Department of Human Resources.
In Houston, Rice University graduate Tara Grigg Garlinghouse updated and led public and employee evaluations of the Municipal Courts Administration, identifying ways the agency could save $1 million in costs and increase revenue by more than $5 million. Then she accepted a permanent job there, working on many of the initiatives she began as a fellow.
Also in Houston, Mario Salinas, a graduate of the University of Houston, worked from his position in the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security to facilitate a regional catastrophic grant program for all 13 counties in the Houston region. Now he’s a management analyst for the city’s Department of Public Works.
Not all City Hall Fellows — there’s a total of 62 so far — stay in municipal government. But virtually all say the experience has changed their perspective on their career opportunities. And their enthusiasm, Henderson believes, often serves to lift the spirits of career workers, “helping them remember why they went into public service in the first place.”
In today’s fiscal squeeze, new cities are reluctant to sign up for City Hall Fellows. But if they did, the long-term results could be little short of transformational.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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