Smart, Young Talent in City Halls? Sharing a New Reality
Editor’s Note: In late-June, New Leaders Council named their “40 Under 40” — a group exemplifying “the spirit of political entrepreneurship.” Below is a guest post from Bethany Rubin Henderson, one of those recently selected who were kind enough to share some of their wisdom with Care2. More posts will be shared over the coming days — so stay tuned!
By BETHANY RUBIN HENDERSON, Founder & Executive Director of City Hall Fellows
What is the biggest problem in your hometown? Skyrocketing crime? Failing schools? Crumbling infrastructure? Chronic homelessness? Too many people out of work? Overcrowded roads? Pollution? The list could go on and on.
Do you know what these problems all have in common? City government. And what is at the heart of city government? People. I’m not talking about the politicians who dominate the headlines. I’m talking about the real people who do the day-to-day work of running our cities – the people who actually design, run, manage and assess all of the municipal services that keep our cities going, as well as develop innovative solutions to our cities’ biggest problems.
I believe that we ought to have – no, deserve to have – the best and brightest residents of our cities working for us in city government. People like the other 39 honorees in this group of “40 under 40” (3 of whom, I was delighted to see, DO work in city government!). I believe that our cities shouldn’t routinely lose top young talent to law firms, consulting firms, tech companies or investment banks. That smart young people itching to serve the public good shouldn’t reflexively think “nonprofit.” This isn’t an issue of big government or small. It’s not a political issue. No matter what side of the aisle you fall on, it just makes good sense.
Unfortunately, cities losing out on new talent has been the norm for decades. Few Americans under 30 can recall a political campaign where the challenger didn’t excoriate government as a bastion of waste, fraud and abuse or berate the people who choose to work in government as incompetent at best. It’s no wonder that generations have been turned off from working for cities. The problem is: it’s you and I who suffer.
City governments across this country now face a perfect storm: mass retirements on the one hand, tight budgets and layoffs that typically first target the few junior staff, on the other. The result: a looming talent vacuum threatening to bring down even the most well-thought-out city programs. It doesn’t matter how good a government program or policy is (no matter the issue, no matter the politics) if the people who work for the city can’t effectively put it into action.
That’s why I founded the non-partisan national service corps City Hall Fellows: to get the young talent who should be tackling our cities’ challenges actually doing that work (think Teach For America for city government). The time is right. For the first time in decades, most college grads now tell pollsters they want to do good as much (or more) than they want to do well. Moreover, the lingering economic uncertainty opens up cities’ access to many talented emerging leaders who never would have given city government a second look before.
I believe that one talented, passionate individual, working from inside city government, can change an agency. And that many working together can change a city. In just over four years, 52 City Hall Fellows spread over 6 cohorts (working in San Francisco, Houston and Baton Rouge) have saved taxpayers over $8 million, piloted ground-breaking anti-obesity and renewable energy programs, project managed water conservation, civil service reform and financial system modernization efforts, and much much more. Over half of alumni remain in city government after their Fellowship year ends; others take on leadership roles at local nonprofits or attend graduate programs at Oxford, Harvard, Georgetown and the like.
Smart young talent will go where smart young talent is. City Hall Fellows has gotten the talent snowball started. Will you help us keep it rolling?
Photo: 2011 San Francisco Fellows visiting a municipal solid waste processing plant. by Michael Rocco, courtesy of City Hall Fellows.