How to Get Started in Local Government

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There are many different ways in which one can dedicate their life and career to serving the public – it is not the sort of discipline that requires moving in a single direction governed by hard and fast rules. However, that being said, taking a position within a department of local government of a city, county or town, be it an urban planning commission or the municipal council, can serve as a particularly fulfilling opportunity for those who have earned a Master of Public Administration degree and wish to put it to use as quickly as possible.

MPA graduates will have learned the essential communication and planning skills essential for success in the agencies that make up local administrations, as well as the financial, sociological and ethical parameters that must be observed when representing the public. Of course, there is much more to it than that summary sentence would indicate, so examining the specifics of why and how community governance can serve MPA students and graduates well will be prudent for anyone who takes this path seriously.

Why start (and remain) local?

The most obvious reason why public service novices – be they equipped with MPA degrees or not – must usually start at the local level instead of moving right into state- or federal-level positions is quite simple – it’s a matter of experience and job competition. People in the federal government might labor for two decades or more at the exact same positions before heading up the ladder of their particular field, leaving for another job or retiring. Essentially, roles aren’t in any ready state of availability – not by a long shot. As an example, according to data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, full-time permanent workers who hold jobs with the federal government have an average tenure of 13.7 years. When positions do open, competition is extremely fierce, and with few exceptions, those who are just getting started won’t upstage candidates with experience and proven success.

By contrast, local governments may well be understaffed and thus need all the help they can get. According to The Muse, those who join local government agencies at the entry level may initially find a number of bureaucratic difficulties or be teamed with workers whose idealism has been placed on the back burner, but strong effort and enthusiasm will be noticed and lead to well-paced advancement. Additionally, in the experience of local and federal administrator Benjamin Clark, in an interview with The Muse, opportunities for enacting actual change are far more numerous and come in many ways when employed in community municipalities.

“Having worked at the federal level, I always felt very disconnected from the final product or result of my work,” Clark told the publication. “[But working locally], you are closer to the people and the programs. This makes it easier for someone working in local government to actually see their work having an effect on the people they are serving.”
Local administrators and lawmakers have a unique chance to know and appreciate their communities in and out in a way they may never have thought possible.

Getting started: Finding a role

Upon establishing that local government is indeed the public service path you want to take, it’s essential for you to take advantage of all available resources in the service of finding your ideal job, according to GovLoop. Many public service advocacy organizations can be of great assistance in this area, including the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, Emerging Local Government Leaders, the National League of Cities and the International City-County Management Association, to name just a few. Such groups will offer a wide range of resources that MPA grads looking for local government jobs can put to good use: job listings, internship listings, fellowship opportunities, information on conferences and seminars for public sector employees and much more.

Networking is just as important for forging connections in public service as it is in the corporate private sector. The aforementioned conferences or conventions are excellent opportunities for that purpose, but you don’t necessarily have to attend every single one. Many of these organizations, GovLoop noted, include member directories on their websites so that you can get in touch with peers in your field who have left themselves open for questions from novices.

Knowing your goals

GovLoop pointed out that having a field, discipline or area of interest in mind from the start is crucial. Your prospective career in community-level administration can’t be motivated by any vague, general interest in bureaucracy, and none of the jobs you’ll encounter, even at the entry level, are roles in which one could simply go through the motions.

At the same time, as GovLoop advised, you should also keep the mind open to multiple possibilities, rather than lock in on one type of job and no others. By not narrowing your focus, you may, for example, find that you’re less than adept at budgets in spite of your interest in government accounting – yet subsequently learn that you possess a knack for closely analyzing municipal contracts and discovering potentially dangerous discrepancies.

Participation and understanding

As previously noted, it’s not possible to sleepwalk through government employment. But some municipal workers might think that it’s acceptable to do their jobs well and cut off their participation at that point, never going above and beyond the call of duty. According to the Guardian, taking that approach would be a mistake of considerable magnitude.

Broadening your involvement in the government of your community by attending open meetings of departments aside from your own is a prudent way of avoiding that potential pitfall. Not all meetings will be open to outside staff, but many are, and any one of these could serve as an extremely valuable learning experience. Those with heads for policy who don’t consider funding issues can learn about them and bring that more nuanced perspective to their next assignments. Or, conversely, a deputy comptroller sitting in on an early meeting of a town councilor’s re-election committee could gain a greater appreciation for the political pressures candidates experience that sometimes limit their ability to execute fiscal policies exactly as they would like to.

The Guardian also noted that understanding government jargon is more important than one might initially think. Phrases ranging from “action items” and “demo (demographic) opinions” to “media buys” will fly around, and you should prepare to rarely, if ever, hear the word “schedule” fully enunciated. (“Sched” or “schege” are common shorthand in this world.)

Finally, while local governance is certainly not a joyless environment, it must nonetheless be taken seriously – it’s not a madcap funhouse like its depiction on the TV show Parks & Recreation. You must ensure any social media profiles that directly name you don’t include statements or other content that would reflect poorly on the community you serve, and your attitude in all professional matters should reflect the pride you have in offering that service.

Recommended readings:

Is a career in politics right for me?
How an MPA can help you run for office

Learn More

The online Master of Public Administration from Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) gives students a broad understanding of the field and its relevant issues. Students become competent at defining public problems, analyzing quantitative and qualitative data, developing and communicating creative solutions, and implementing ethical and practical courses of action.


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