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Lessons to a Young Local Government Administrator (Part 2 of 2)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ian M. Coyle
June 5, 2023

This is the second part of a two-part series. The first part (Lessons 1-5) can be found here.

During my career in local government, now spanning nearly 20 years, I have been both the youngest Village Manager in my state and the youngest County Administrator. Counting internships, I have worked for a town, village, city, county, state and the federal government. “I wish I knew then what I know now” is the type of comment that comes to mind when reflecting on my career and both the bumps and joys along the way. I titled this two part-series Lessons to a Young Local Government Administrator, but one need not be young to enjoy and have this, hopefully, be of some impact and use. Additionally, while due to my most recent experience some of this is county branded, the notes and lessons here are really agnostic to the level or type of local government. One could just be fresh, green or new to the position of local government manager for these tutorial pieces to be of value.

6) Family and Life Balance—I recently participated in a coaching webinar that in turn led to a Public Management article which discussed how to balance organizational demands with your personal life. A manager is always juggling multiple priorities at the organizational level. Add to this situation raising teenagers, a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, a temporary disability, an impending divorce, etc. Allow yourself time off. Allow for self-care and for mental health check-ins. Make this a focus of your work/personal life balance, but also a feature of the culture that you promote and sustain in your own organization.

7) Training (Early) Recommendations—Take advantage of opportunities to learn professionally from others, from seminars and from conferences. Soak up all that you can and do not turn down offerings. A new trend is for the MPA graduate to seek mico-credentials and other certifications to go along with their degree while employers find additional skills in areas like strategic planning, project management and participatory budgeting very attractive.

8) Public Speaking, Community Engagement—This is an area of personal emphasis for me in Livingston County. Some reports referencing 2023 trends note that so-called “soft social skills” in the next generation of leaders are potentially lacking due to remote work, Covid impacts and the prevalence of social media/text reliance for communication. Therefore, seek out opportunities to tell and share your organization’s story. Engage proactively with the public. While certain technological advancements have made interaction with residents on a virtual basis much easier, these outlets should be ancillary and in addition to the old-school personal connections at town halls and in-person meetings. The spillover effects are great. First, you can head off commentary and criticism by meeting with residents on their time and off-meetings. Secondly, you can message new programs and projects that the local government is pursuing. Third, you can market the availability of job openings and career path possibilities to the general public in this era of recruitment and retention challenges.

9) Push the Envelope—This recommendation applies to almost everything organizationally and operationally. Challenge common perceptions. Do not take past practice as science, law and/or authority. Contemplate being “the first” at doing something creative or innovative. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard that “no county is doing __________” (insert in: this program, this service, this idea, etc). The light bulb was not invented because the candle stopped working. Someone needs to be the leader, the one that tries out new ideas for the betterment of their community. Let that be you.

10) Age is just a number—If you are new or green to this profession of local government management and are either older than the traditional first-time manager or younger, here’s some simple advice—it doesn’t matter. What matters is your performance and your ability to meet metrics for how your performance will be measured. Jump in with two feet to the position and assume nothing. Simply put, you need to meet the moment. You have been provided the opportunity to make a significant difference in a community through the effective administration of public services. Capitalize on that opportunity!

Author: Dr. Ian M. Coyle, ICMA-CM is the County Administrator in Livingston County, NY. He has worked in government for 20 years and has taught MPA courses for a variety of universities. Through his consultancy, Pracademic Partners, Ian also provides assistance to other organizations in four key areas: executive search; management consulting; executive/leadership coaching; and teaching, training & professional development experiences.

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