Classic City Hall

Editor's note: The content of this blog post comes from ICMA’s e-book Breaking Into Local Government: A Guidebook for Career Changers. Our previous blog post from the e-book focused on transitioning from the private sector.

by Niles Anderegg, research and content development associate, ICMA

Local government is a unique arrangement In the American governmental system. While local government does have similarities with other types of government such as state and federal government, the connection between officials and the people is so much greater at the local government level. Similarly, although the nonprofit sector and local government overlap in that managers in both settings try to do more with less and put people first, there are also some challenges with the transition from the nonprofit to local government sectors.  To help those thinking about making this type of transition, here are three stories from local government leaders who have changed careers to local government. 

Coming from the Nonprofit Sector

Maria Hurtado, now the assistant city manager of Hayward, California, began her career in the nonprofit sector before transitioning to local government. When she decided to make the switch to local government, she realized that her experience translated well into local government because she had a background in program development and interagency collaboration in the nonprofit sector. Ms. Hurtado also found some important differences between the nonprofit and local government sectors.  For example, compared to nonprofits, local government has more financial stability and administrative support than nonprofits do. 

The biggest challenge with this transition is a change in mindset. In the nonprofit world, she was an advocate for the work that the nonprofit did, and this entailed being politically active. However, a local government position is much more about being a steward and taking care of the community while at the same time being apolitical. This shift meant that she had to adjust how she engaged with elected officials and also how she thought of the work she was doing. In the end, though, working in both the local government and nonprofit sectors has the same reward, which is knowing that you are providing quality services to the local community. 

Coming from State Government

Former Roeland Park Kansas City Manager Aaron Otto came from positions in both the federal and state government before working in local government. One of the biggest changes he saw coming from state government to local government was a difference in citizen expectations.  At the state level, citizens are primarily concerned with “ big picture policy issues”  whereas citizens at the local government level are more concerned with immediate issues especially service delivery since that “impact their lives on a daily basis.” Mr. Otto also saw that this change in expectations happened on the employee side as well so he could see a more direct impact on what he did on the lives of his residents at the local level than he could at the state or federal level.

In providing guidance for those considering making a similar switch to local government, Mr. Otto suggests that people find a mentor to help them through that transition as well as find small ways to plan for the future.  Local government managers are often put into high pressure and fast-paced environments that don't allow them to plan, but by taking small steps towards planning, Mr. Otto thinks local government managers would be more successful. 

Coming from the Federal Government

Opal Mauldin-Jones is the city manager of Lancaster, Texas, and has been since 2011. However, before her career in local government, she worked for the federal government in a congressional office. This congressional experience has allowed Ms. Mauldin-Jones to understand her council better.  In her congressional office, she had to focus on the political aspects of government.  As city manager, even though she is not political, she understands how politicians may see the world. 

At the same time, her congressional experience did have some similarities with her local government position, including a lack of job security. Both city manager and congressional jobs can be affected by circumstances such as elections that result in changes in public officials. However, Ms. Mauldin-Jones does encourage others in the federal government to look at local government as a good option to continue their career and believes that federal government employees would make excellent local government employees as well. 

These three case studies are just some of the examples found in the Breaking Into Local Government Guidebook. Check out the guidebook to get more perspectives on changing careers to local government.  

Related Resources 

Breaking Into the Public Sector Job Market. This Public Management (PM) magazine article from 2015 looks at some the skills most needed by local government. 

Career Compass No. 59: Perform the Job Before You Get It. In a Career Compass article from 2017, Dr. Frank Benest tries to answer the question "How do you maximize the likelihood of getting promoted?"

4 Things to Consider When Trying for Your First Local Government Job. This 2018 blog post provides information for recent grads when considering local government as a career. 


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