When I started the University of North Carolina MPA program in August 2013, I knew that I had a passion for public service and that I was attracted to government work. But I wasn’t sure what level of government would be the best fit for my interests. In a previous article, I’ve discussed that during my first year in the UNC MPA program I’ve been exposed increasingly to city and county government issues and this has lead to an increased interest in local government. To further determine whether what I’ve learned in the classroom about local government matches the experience in working on the local level, I accepted an internship with the Catawba County (NC) Manager’s Office.
My work experience in Catawba County began after Memorial Day. I would describe the beginning of my experience as exhilarating and extremely educational. I am appreciative that the County has given me tremendous opportunities to grow professionally and learn all areas of county government. While I am only a few weeks into my work experience, I have learned three key lessons about local government management.
Partnerships are Key to Success
One of my first experiences was attending a Board of Commissioners Public Budget Hearing, during which I learned about a unique partnership between the three school districts in Catawba County school district is large enough to provide certain special services to students but small enough where individually providing those services would be inefficient.
Realizing this, the districts have identified three programs where they work together to provide. Each district is responsible for operating one program for all three districts. This approach allows the districts to provide high-quality services in a cost-efficient manner improving educational outcomes in the County. This collaborative approach has enabled an economically distressed community like Catawba County to enjoy quality public schools at a relatively low tax rate. If you are a local government leader, consider options to partner with others and if they make sense for your community.
Learn By “Doing”
My supervisor has encouraged me to experience all areas of Catawba County government. Following her advice, I have shadowed front-line employees throughout the County. I recently spent six hours at the County’s 911 Communications Center. I learned an incredible amount about 911 communications that night but the main takeaway was unrelated to 911. What I learned was the importance of management spending time in the field. The 911 operators repeatedly mentioned the positive message sent when the County management team spends time in the communications center. For the operators who are proud of their work, it provides an opportunity to share their work with the decision makers while at the same time showing that the County values their work and input. While all Managers’ are very busy, try to spend time in the field at least once annually with your different departments.
One of the things that attracted me to Catawba County is its history of innovation. Over the last 12 years, the County has received more than 200 awards for their pioneering approaches to providing services. In the 1990′s, the County was one of the first governments to create a website, ever since, the County has fostered a culture of innovation in the use of technology. In 2013, the Center for Digital Government ranked Catawba as a leader in the effective and efficient use of digital technologies. One of the keys to their award-winning streak is that they are willing to think outside the box.
Through the Re-Inventing Departments budget process, the County provides departments flexibility to achieve goals and reward them for achieving those goals. Local governments should question if the status quo is the best strategy and find ways to improve upon the status quo.