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The problems facing local governments are wicked. They are pervasive; have numerous causes; cross over many professional, organizational, and jurisdictional boundaries; and cannot be solved with traditional methods. These wicked problems aren’t new and have plagued local governments for decades. With social and technical advances, however, these problems have only increased in complexity and placed further demands on local governments to address them.

In 2019, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) identified many of these wicked issues by naming the 12 Grand Challenges facing public administration. The challenges run the gamut and include modernizing and reinvigorating the public service, “fostering social equity, and building resilient communities, among others. They acknowledge that the challenges exist at every level of government.

With the onset and aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 12 Grand Challenges managed to become even more complex for local governments. Suddenly, many weaknesses in our intergovernmental system became apparent and helped accelerate the departure of talent in local government across all service professions. The notion of being able to tackle these challenges was increasingly difficult to imagine. It was clear that there was an imbalance between the challenges that face us and the resources available to address those problems.

In response, NAPA fellow and city manager of Issaquah, Washington, Wally Bobkiewicz, brought together an ad hoc group of experienced local government professionals to develop a plan of action. Their guiding principle recognized that a new and radical approach was needed to “think big” about these problems and devise solutions needed to solve them.

The result has become the Local Government 2030 initiative. This effort began by convening 51 local government administrators, all under the age of 40, as delegates to talk about the future of local government. The motivation was to place the very people who will address these challenges in the future at the very center of building solutions.

This was a unique prospect for the delegates and a once-in-a-career opportunity. As noted by Megan Caron, strategic initiatives analyst for Nashua, New Hampshire, “Often times, there aren’t enough hours in the day to really hone in on trying to create effective solutions for the problems we all face. The convening gave us the time and space to do just that. It really felt like we were beginning to shape the future of local government.” For the 16 super delegates (coaches), this was a chance to share their wisdom and experiences with the next generation of the profession as they were charged with tackling the biggest challenges.

In early November 2022, the local government delegates and super delegates from cities, counties, tribal, and regional governments from around the nation convened at the University of Nebraska Omaha. In order to encourage thinking outside the departmental, professional, and jurisdictional boundaries, the convening modeled itself on the Minnowbrook Conferences. Raftelis facilitated the event using the “Minnowbrook Charge,” which states, “You are not inhibited by cost or difficulty, but what you imagine must be desirable, feasible, and motivating.”

The delegates represented seven general service areas: general administration, public safety, finance, public works, administrative services, community services, and planning/economic development. Given the short time the group would be together in person, members of each service area took a few weeks prior to the convening to evaluate the 12 Grand Challenges and provide examples and context as to how these challenges play out in their specific jurisdictions. Delegates met with their service group virtually and developed white papers on their perspectives ahead of time.

Once in Omaha, the convening unfolded in four stages over two days, beginning with the seven service area teams presenting the highlights of the white papers. In stage two, the facilitation group rearranged the delegates into a second round of teams centered around five themes on future of local government: programmatic, political, structural, financial, and technological. The groups discussed, reported their observations, and reacted to feedback. These exercises laid the foundation for the main task: planning for the future.

In the third stage, the facilitation group again reorganized the teams, this time mixing the service groups into regional groups that included the east coast, the west coast, and big cities. David Swindell, director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University, noted, “Shuffling the delegates in different configurations exposed them to peers with perspectives from different service areas, different community contexts, and different personal backgrounds, which had a direct impact on their ideas for the future and the priorities among those ideas.”

This is where the groups started to get very specific as they shifted to developing meaningful, viable, and more realistic initiatives in response to the problems. As Lisa Henty, delegate and office of management and budget director of Fauquier County, Virginia, noted, “The most rewarding part of the regional group experience was to see so many passionate peers pitch thoughtful, creative ideas. It doesn’t happen enough like that in local government.”

The super delegates played a critically important role during this stage of the convening as they challenged the delegates in order help each of the three groups hone their ideas for solutions and move from fuzzy ideals to three concrete actionable goals.

The fourth and final stage saw the groups coming back together as a whole. Each of the three regional groups presented their three initiatives. This allowed participants to see where their ideas overlapped with their colleagues. Lisa Henty again noted, “I was surprised how easy it was to connect with others on topics I am personally passionate about, but was more amazed by how initiatives were generated with great detail in such a short period of time.”

The facilitation team combined the overlapping topics. As time was running out for the in-person convening, the energy ramped up as the facilitation team tasked the delegates with prioritizing the now-seven ideas down to the “Big Three Ideas” that would serve as the foundation for Local Government 2030 moving forward. With each winnowing, passions among the delegates rose. Ultimately, the delegates coalesced around these three initiatives:

  1. Building resiliency into our local government workforce.
  2. Broadening how we use communication strategies and technologies in public service.
  3. Embracing the role of government as a role model for social change.

Grow a Resilient Workforce

Governments at all levels have felt the impacts of demographic changes in an aging population, budgetary challenges both fiscal and political, as well as external shocks that have fundamentally forced a re-examination of traditional viewpoints about work habits. Public service is still a popular career objective for many young people, but they are finding government service less appealing and increasingly seeking alternative pathways to fulfill their public service appetites.

As reported by both Polco and MissionSquare Research Institute, the post-COVID-19 surge in retirements and lower numbers than normal of younger people applying has translated into a challenge for local governments that respond by shifting additional workloads onto existing workers (without improved compensation alternatives) and increased contracting out. This exacerbates the declining appeal of government service among younger members of the workforce. Currently, this challenge is acute due to the strong labor market drawing more talent away from public service. Technological innovations (e.g., artificial intelligence) will bring additional disruption to all employment sectors.

These push and pull factors have created significant turbulence in the local government labor pipeline, among both front-line service professionals as well as those in administration. As a result, one of the primary initiatives to emerge from the delegates seeks to build greater resiliency into the local government workforce in order to weather not only the current turmoil, but also future shocks.

Following the convening, the delegates self-selected different initiatives to work on in the coming months. They are developing an array of strategies to be shared across all governments that can help build a base of administrative talent committed to lifelong career in local government. The strategies focus on employee recruitment, retention, and development.

The Art of Public Service: The Communication Continuum

Communication among public administrators and with the public they serve has long been a challenge for government. Today’s combination of technological options, anonymity afforded on many social media platforms, and a heated political environment will only lower trust in government and endanger our ability to govern. This is a significant challenge.

The delegates chose as their second major initiative for Local Government 2030 tackling this complex communication challenge as a central aspect of public service. This initiative reframes the issue and places the starting point for building the new approach on how public servants communicate in meaningful, two-way channels, with an emphasis on the development of soft skills and emotional intelligence. At the end of the day, local governments build and shape communities. The work done at the local level is too important for it to get lost in miscommunication between technocrats and emotional issues. Imagine an environment in which a technical expert could also respond with empathy, understanding, and creativity to a resident’s concern.

This group is developing a tool kit of alternative communication approaches with this focus that communities around the nation can adopt, both in terms of technical solutions as well as philosophical orientations and organizational cultures in our local governments.

Promised Pathways

The third initiative the delegates selected focuses on embracing the role of local governments as role models for social change. This emerges from an understanding that the tradition of the “politically neutral” has been misunderstood and is more accurately “partisan neutrality,” which is a fundamentally different proposition. 6 As a result, government has often served as the primary vehicle through which social change has been demonstrated for other sectors.

In order to illustrate one example of this, the delegates are developing strategies and action steps designed to expand employment opportunities for individuals in our communities that have been impacted by the justice system. They are working on a “policy playbook” that communities can adapt to their own jurisdictional contexts to help address this justice issue, while also taking steps to attract more people to careers in public service.

The convening brought together individuals from all facets of local government who are committed to public service, but also firmly believe that we can do and be better. Assistant city manager of Sachse, Texas, and delegate Lauren Rose commented, “Trying to solve new problems with old solutions is no longer a viable option. It is time for local governments to think outside of the box and to try completely new approaches as we modernize the profession.”

Marc Ott, CEO/Executive Director of ICMA, remarked on the group’s efforts: “ICMA has been proud to support the LocalGov2030 initiative. The challenges that local governments are and will continue to face over the next decade will require creative and innovative approaches, and we need to look to the next generation of leaders who will carry the torch to help develop and implement solutions. The dedication of the delegates to developing their initiatives remind us that the future of local government remains bright.”

While the delegates continue to work on their initiatives, the planning group is already working on the future phases of the Local Government 2030 effort. Many of the delegates will come back together at Arizona State University’s downtown campus in February 2024, though the next convening will integrate a group of local elected officials committed to solving these same grand challenges. We may be enduring a rough time at the moment, but the passion and insights demonstrated by these up-and-coming managers should give us all hope for a very bright future for local governments. They are the local government managers of tomorrow who will be navigating us through the grand challenges as we seek to serve our residents better.


LAUREN ROSE is assistant city manager of Sachse, Texas (delegate).

MEGAN CARON is strategic initiatives analyst for Nashua, New Hampshire (delegate).

LISA HENTY is office of management and budget director for Fauquier County, Virginia (delegate).

CRAIG OWENS is city manager of Lawrence, Kansas (super delegate).

DAVID SWINDELL is director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University (super delegate).

TANYA ANGE is county administrator of Washington County, Oregon (super delegate).

JULIA NOVAK is executive vice president of Raftelis (facilitator).


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