Kirsten Wyatt on the Next Generation of City Leaders
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
As a feature in our bi-monthly newsletter, Tech for Gov, CivStart had a fantastic conversation with Kirsten Wyatt of Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) about joy in local government, inclusion, and the next generation of local government leaders. CS: There are a lot of local government groups and associations, what makes ELGL different?
KW: We refer to ELGL as a “big tent” organization because we welcome anyone working for or with local governments to become a member. This is important because there’s not just one path to leadership in local government - there are so many ways people can make a difference when they work for towns, cities, counties, and districts. This results in a rich diversity of people and perspectives who are part of ELGL - it means that you might have the chance to learn from managers, accountants, librarians, chiefs, planners, IT directors (and more) - and those diverse perspectives strengthen local government because of the interconnectedness of the public sector.
Fundamentally, we want to bust silos as a way to welcome more people into local government, so everyone knows there’s a place for them to make a difference. We also embrace “joy” as one of our core values. We believe that celebrating and recognizing the important work of local government is critical given how challenging public sector careers can be.
CS: Many local government officials worry about the next generation as they approach retirement, how does ELGL help cultivate the next generation? Do you have any good success stories?
KW: For a long time, I think people treated cultivating the next generation of local government leaders as a Ron Popeil Showtime Rotisserie Chicken oven - “set it and forget it.” The idea that if you hire someone who’s earlier in their career, they could just camp out for a decade or two, then they’d step into leadership roles. What we’ve found to be true, is that people need support, flexibility, and recognition if we want to keep them in local government.
That’s why ELGL spends so much time building out networks to encourage and uplift local government employees at all stages of their career; promoting flexible workplaces and non-linear career paths; and celebrating and recognizing the work of people at all levels of their career, not just department directors, managers, and elected officials.
The happiness and excitement that we see during our award programs for top local government places, influencers, and on City Hall Selfie day are reflective of the importance of making sure people know that local government work is work worth doing.
CS: Could you tell me a little about the work ELGL is doing to promote diverse leaders in local government and building inclusive local governments more broadly?
KW: We are really excited about two new programs we’re launching in 2022. We’re in the process of launching a new community platform for our members and are building out “ELGL Collectives” - special places where our members of color can engage and connect. This is an important aspect of ensuring that our members can form authentic and real connections with each other - a huge part of building strong networks.
We’re also sharing gender data in appointed local government management positions thanks to a partnership with CivicPulse and Qualtrics. We have the administrative data for all communities with a population of 1,000+, from 2013 to 2021. This information will be shared on DiversityDashboard.org as an open data set, to include a topline findings report and an interactive map to see where local government management is reflective of gender diversity.
CS: What do you see as critical gaps in local government leadership right now and what do you think are some of the things emerging leaders are bringing to the table that are going to make a big positive impact on future local governments? (feel free to ignore the first part of this question if it doesn’t work for you)
KW: Communications and creativity. While we clearly need technical expertise in building and maintaining strong communities, the complexity of local public problems means that we need people who are gifted communicators, change managers, and empathetic leaders. The rise of “innovation” offices is just shorthand for people who can navigate through complex challenges. If local government focuses on hiring people who are curious, creative, and empathetic, the future will look bright.
Also, don’t sleep on communicators and librarians as the future local government leaders we need. They have in-the-trenches experience working on complex and challenging issues while communicating clearly, working with data, and promoting diverse engagement.
CS: What are you excited about in 2022?
KW: In the short term: we just started an ELGL Wordle Nerd WhatsApp group and it’s chock full of everyone’s daily Wordle scores and also tips on strategy. To me, it’s a perfect reflection of what ELGL means when we say that we are forming authentic connections - this group has nothing to do with local government leadership, but it is bringing together local government leaders who love word games. Authentic connections can be formed when we tap into the things that our members care most about (in this case - Wordle….).
Bigger picture: in the first half of 2022 we’ll be updating ELGL’s strategic plan. Our current plan is the foundation and I’m excited to learn from our members the direction they want us to take the organization over the next few years. We’re approaching the update in classic ELGL style, so people can expect a lot of opportunities to engage in different ways so we can ensure the plan is setting us on a course to be responsive to what our members need, as well as set some big goals for ELGL’s work on important topics like innovation; diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice; and supporting local government leaders so they stay in the public sector.