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Welcome to City Hall: Getting Creative in Recruiting for Public Service

By Mark Funkhouser


During my five decades in public service, first as a social worker, then as a performance auditor, and finally as mayor of Kansas City, I have witnessed the enormous impact that many government employees have had in making life better for their community. Many job-seekers look for meaningful, challenging careers where they can make a positive impact on society. But career options in public service — and especially in local government — often are overlooked.

A big reason is that government jobs aren’t marketed in the right way to the next generation of workers. But this month I came across one of the most creative and powerful advertisements I’ve seen yet for why young people finishing their education should consider a career in public service.

At the June 21 Philadelphia Phillies game and in local watering holes downtown, baseball fans weren’t only rooting for their team — they were also cheering on public-works employees and contractors. In a stroke of brilliant marketing, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had set up a live camera feed showing their teams from the citythe statefederal agencies and local building-trades hustling around the clock to make emergency repairs on the section of I-95 that had collapsed when a gasoline tanker truck caught fire just 10 days earlier. The feed was broadcast at the Phillies game and in bars all around town, making heroes of these workers as they closed in on completing in just 12 days a project that had been estimated to take months.

And in what had the atmosphere of a championship parade, the Philadelphia Fire Department led the first vehicles across the new lanes on June 23 — carrying mascots from Philadelphia’s six professional sports teams applauding the construction crews.

At a time when government workers are feeling burnt out and increasing political divisiveness is hurting their morale, this effort shined a rare light on the important ground-level work of government. With critical staffing shortages across the nation, how can city managers, county executives and human resources directors shine a spotlight on public service? How might we introduce the field to potential candidates?

To answer these questions, the Funkhouser & Associates team spoke with colleagues and recent hires across the country. Their advice included improving outreach and expanding internship and fellowship programs, modernizing the recruitment process, and getting creative in reaching prospective employees.

Get their attention: Beyond the I-95 construction live cam, what are good ways to introduce candidates to public service? In Douglasville, Georgia, they begin with young residents.

Douglasville City Manager Marcia Hampton recommends that her colleagues elsewhere reach out to school superintendents to have city staff speak to middle-school students. Her communications team produces “Douglasville Jr.,” award-winning short videos that describe city services and feature city employees.

Maggie Jones, assistant director of the Community Development Department in Tarrant County, Texas, also serves on the board of Engaging Local Government Leaders and frequently speaks to private and nonprofit groups in her county. “I’ve given presentations about what I do, what my job is and why it’s important to work at the county,” she said, adding that local governments should have a “speakers bureau” as a way to continuously educate constituencies.

Educate the educators: “We always find it surprising that colleges don’t teach students about local government,” said Chelsea Jackson, Douglasville’s assistant city manager. Instead, political science and public policy programs tend to focus on federal policy and state legislative affairs. She sees adding local government to that mix as an opportunity to create recruitment pipelines.

Mia Blom, senior director of government and community affairs at Visit Baltimore, reminds us to look beyond the typical areas that are related to government, such as in hospitality or journalism programs. “The next generation wants to be aligned with purpose,” she says, “and this is the government’s time to take advantage of that need.”

Make the most of internships and fellowships: By far, the most frequently highlighted and successful practice to introduce local government to students is to invest in internship programs. Norfolk, Virginia, has a robust program and an impressive track record of full-time employees who began their careers as interns for the city. Among them is Chris Whitney, Norfolk’s chief of long-range planning. He started his career with the city 11 years ago as an intern in the city manager’s office working with the city’s lobbyist. “The internship program is the reason I am here,” he says. “It got me that foundation and exposure and led me to where I am.”

Wayne Green, Norfolk’s director of real estate, says the city’s goal for every cohort of 25 interns is to retain five as full-time employees. “For me personally, I get renewal out of the program,” Green says. “The young people teach me skills that make me better; the work with young people keeps me strong.”

Fellowship programs are formal tracks for high-performing candidates. Christine Moore is the local government management fellow in Decatur, Georgia, and says she accepted the position because it had both “flexibility and structure.” She’s completed projects for the city manager, established relationships with most department heads and developed a cohort of young professionals in other jurisdictions through the Georgia City-County Management Association. In Douglasville, Jackson touts the International City/County Management Association’s Local Government Management Fellowship, with candidates screened by ICMA and paid by the host city.

Lean in to social media: Social media allows extensive marketing beyond traditional government job-posting platforms, placing open recruitments in front of exponentially more eyeballs. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu posted a recruitment video this month on social media inviting applicants to join the “City of Champions.” It got thousands of views in just the first 24 hours.

Be employee-centric: For most of us, the pandemic underscored the importance of quality time, and for the Class of 2023 that mindset is embedded in their view of the workplace. Localities should take steps to be an employee-centric city and infuse that value in all decisions, says Jodene Dunphy, human resources director in Poway, California. She emphasizes work-life balance, with City Hall closed every other Friday and a culture of fun in the organization.

Indeed, the top criteria for the new graduates we interviewed was flexibility — in schedule and location — while also being able to bond in-person with co-workers. Cities and counties can position themselves as an employer of choice by adjusting policies around schedule, work tools and training, and then prominently advertising these flexible benefits in job descriptions.

Dig out of the recruitment holes: Like many cities, Berkeley, California, is stuck in a multi-year cycle of staff retirements and departures with limited recruitment success. According to a report by the city auditor, staff shortages are so acute that service delivery to residents has been affected and the city’s financial risk exacerbated. The audit includes 25 recommendations to manage retention, update job descriptions, amend hiring procedures, implement telework, upgrade internal data systems and address diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. City managers, HR directors and elected officials across the country should consider implementing the suggestions in their own jurisdictions.

While this is one of the most difficult times for public-sector recruitment I’ve witnessed, it’s also a time of great opportunity and even optimism. Ideas — like flexible work hours — that would have been radical just five years ago are being implemented all across the country, and there is a nearly universal desire to modernize the government workplace for the next generation. We may not have a live cam in every city with cheering fans to advertise the value of public service, but there are plenty of other tools and creative ways to spotlight the work of local government.

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