Debra R. Collins is the deputy city manager for Alexandria, Virginia, and has been an ICMA member since February 2011. She comes to Alexandria from the Erie County Department of Social Services in Buffalo, New York, where she served eight years as the second deputy commissioner.
Collins was appointed the director of human services for Alexandria in September 2003 and in 2008, she joined the City Manager’s Office as assistant city manager. In 2012, Collins was named deputy city manager.
She is currently secretary of the board for ACT for Alexandria, chair of the Northern Virginia Human Service Officials Committee of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, a member of the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, a member of the 2007 Class of Leadership Greater Washington, and a 2007 alumnus of the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program.
Like many ICMA members, Collins has concerns about current challenges to the profession. “I believe the most challenging issue facing our members is the erosion of the public trust in government and the subsequent decline in civility as a result,” says Collins. “There has been an increasing lack of trust in government in the last several decades. In the last 10 years, it has been exacerbated by a falsely expanded and then shrinking economy brought about by the housing boom and predatory lending practices which has resulted in our residents losing their homes and livelihoods.”
“This coupled with high-profile unethical and criminal actions by public officials across the United States have caused our residents to feel there is no entity focused on their well-being and every man/woman must be out for him or herself. With a lack of trust in the institution of government, there is no obligation to maintain the respect given in previous decades. A minority of bad decisions has colored the entire workforce of local government and created a “them” versus “us” divide between the people and those who serve them.”
“Another major issue that relates to the lack of trust is the loss of a big portion of the public sector workforce in the next few years. Although there was a slowdown of retirements in the height of the downturn, the baby boomer generation is starting to increase their exodus from the workforce.”
“The drop in morale among public servants is a contributing factor as well. There are many in government who came because of a true desire to do public service. The increasing rejection by the community, and the publicly supported changes and reductions to pension and benefit programs makes the work less palatable and retiring a more desired option. Conversely, the newer generations entering the workforce see the tableau that exists and it is not an appealing environment to pursue as a career. We must work a lot harder to regain the public trust through transparency and increased civic engagement to try and shift this paradigm.”
“As challenging as it is right now, this is also an exciting time to be in local government. This is the level of government where the people feel they are still in control of what happens to them. It is our obligation to renew their confidence and develop better ways to work as partners with residents and the private sector to improve communities as a team and not just as a bureaucracy.”
When asked about the value of ICMA in supporting the local government professionals at the forefront of these challenges, Collins notes that “ICMA provides an abundance of online webinars, research-based tools and discussion group opportunities to pose difficult questions and have the advice of peers and others to help find innovative ways to address these problems. Additionally, the daily ICMA News Briefing gives you real snapshots about what challenges and opportunities other jurisdictions are undergoing on a real-time basis.”
“Having only been a member for a couple of years, I find that there are a lot of opportunities to find colleagues engaged in the same challenges and make those connections. It keeps me informed about what else is going on in local government and also has avenues for me to increase my professional development through engagement on committees, conferences, and discussion groups.”
“Engagement with ICMA really is what you make it. You can be active, or card carrying only. For those of us who are more recent members, I think we need to promote that it is accessible and inclusive to all genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds; including age. I initially felt that it was an exclusionary group based on the composition of the majority. What I have found and encourage is that the composition and how inviting the group appears to others depends on each member reaching out to someone else that has a different perspective or experience in city or county management. If the membership is more reflective of the residents we serve, then joining and participating actively in ICMA will be of greater benefit to a more diverse group of managers and how they approach their roles as leaders in local government.”