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ICMA Fellow Views Public Service Across the Globe

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Kelly Larson

larson juneThe International City County Management Association’s (ICMA) Professional Fellows Exchange could be the poster child for “highlight[ing] the contribution of public service in the development process,” the purported reason behind the United Nations Public Service Day. In 2011, the ICMA and the China University on Political Science and Law (CUPL) entered into a partnership agreement with development at its core and a focus on reciprocal education, training and exchange opportunities. In 2013, the City of Dubuque hosted a professional fellow from the Changsha municipal Urban Planning Bureau. In March 2014, the Changsha municipal government hosted me for the reciprocal exchange. Though differences abound – a city of 60,000 in the heart of democracy and one of 7.5 million in the heart of communism – it did not take long for us to uncover our commonalities.

Before traveling to Changsha, I spent time with the CUPL and government officials in Beijing learning the basics of Chinese governance and legislative structure. It became clear that there was a shared goal of operating under the rule of law and the ICMA China Center partnership is designed to examine the different ways of doing so. It is also designed to move from the theoretical and national level down to an examination of how things operate in practice locally.

When I worked with local officials in Changsha, I was struck by our shared experiences. As in the United States, change can cause us to view the rule of law as both an aid and a hindrance in meeting the immediate needs of residents. Public servants draw forth their creativity and problem solving abilities to meet outside demands and the needs of the people they serve.

My time with the Planning Bureau in Changsha involved visits to several developments designed to make the city an international destination. The Delta Block project is a beautiful and luxurious creation. Seated on the banks where two rivers meet, it includes everything from recreational activities, to an elementary school, to retail and commercial districts. It is a city within a city, catering to the upper class and international business people. The developer described plans to expand and showed us additional land planned for purchase. One of the municipal staff traveling with me explained that the area described by the developer includes the home of her parents – the expansion she will work on as part of her job will likely include the relocation of her family. While an extreme example, accepting a role in public service at times confronts us with very personal sacrifice.

However, it also provides us the opportunity to influence the direction of change. The central government over the past ten years has made rural development a priority. It was once popular opinion that those born into a rural lifestyle were the unlucky ones. Today, they see a shift towards envy for the rural residents due to the infusion of capital into those areas. We visited two villages that have been transformed from places with little economic assistance and growth to a new model of rural living. Benefits to local farmers have included doubling their average income, running water, new single-family homes and free compulsory education for youth. Trade-offs have come in the form of what seems to be a Chinese version of corporate farming. Once again, my conversations revealed the balancing act of creativity, constructive change and practicalities inherent in public service.

The strongest commonalities of public service revealed themselves at the community level. Changsha is divided into six districts, which in turn are divided into 452 communities, each covering an average of 652 square meters. Communities are geographic areas of approximately 8,000 to 10,000 residents, which are served by a local government service center of ten to fifteen staff. There are three types of staff: 1) people who serve on the party secretary committee, 2) people who serve on the residents’ administrative committee and 3) people who serve as paid employees. The first two committees consist of volunteers who are residents of the community and are elected by the other community residents. Elections are held every three years and the committees periodically hold open meetings with all residents.

These ten to fifteen people are charged with meeting residents’ daily needs and guarding the following rights of residents:

  • The right to safety and security.
  • The right to family planning support.
  • The right to labor.
  • The right to housing.
  • The right to public health.
  • The right to access to cultural and physical activities.
  • The right to charity for the aged and disabled.

To guard these rights, each service center must provide these services: a reception office, a conference office, a reading office, a public security office, a health office, a special care for the aged office, a service center for medical needs, an office for cultural and exercise activities and a supermarket with basic necessities for the elderly and disabled.  All of this, while contending with change.

In one community visited, staff emphasized the importance of communication and collaboration. A feedback board is posted in a visible location near the service desk. When a resident reports a problem to the administration, the problem is listed along with the date reported and the ultimate resolution. Staff also arranges for speakers on such issues as parenting, education and legal parameters. A community-generated newspaper includes everything from a community calendar to police warnings and reports and healthcare information for the elderly. Election information is also included in the paper, with names, photos and phone numbers for candidates. Residents are recognized for doing good deeds, while the essays and artwork of youth are displayed.

A volunteer station is staffed for residents to sign up to serve and resident teams have been created to address women’s issues, youth issues and environmental protection. Information on volunteer needs is communicated both through an electronic sign in the entry, the community newspaper and a website. Those in public service find ways to support and engage residents, with a special emphasis on the intergenerational supports for families. One woman leads a dance team of women over sixty as part of the health programs. A retired therapist was provided office space to offer free consultation to residents on Saturday afternoons where she supports socialization of single children and works with young mothers struggling to balance career and families. A library, internet café and piano rooms serve as places for the retired to serve as tutors for youth in the community, providing childcare and monitoring homework time between the hours of school ending and parents arriving home from work.

Henry Hampton said that “[w]hat drives people to public service is a sense of possibility. If you haven’t sensed that possibility, you don’t get started in the same way, you don’t feel you can have an impact.”  It was the possibility of impact that one of my young Chinese interpreters described as her reason for weathering the trials and tribulations associated with landing a career in public service in China.  The intellectual bar is high, the competition for the jobs ruthless yet she persevered. In the end, the core of public service is care for and with the public.  It should not be at all surprising that this is shared across the globe.


Author: Kelly Larson is the executive director for the City of Dubuque Human Rights Department.  She can be reached at [email protected].

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