When most people think of local government, Pawnee, Indiana is the first image that comes to mind. But a job in City Hall doesn’t always mean bosses who want to slash their own budgets and colleagues who would do anything to avoid work. During my six years working for the City of New York, I had the privilege of collaborating with scores of talented people on issues that really mattered to my neighbors.
My uncommon choice to enter local government meant that I was the one at the bar with a story about donning a bulletproof vest and riding in a cop car for a day. I helped couples navigate the Marriage Bureau on the first day gay marriage was legal, and I ventured 12 stories below the bedrock to see a 200-ton machine creating our next subway tunnel.
That said, the job isn’t about the stories, and glamour is the exception, not the rule. Most local governments don’t have the budget to update their aging cubicles or stock their kitchens with organic snacks. But whether you’re a political junkie or a recent graduate looking to make a difference, working for your city or town can be incredibly rewarding. Here are five reasons why.
1. You Learn How Stuff Really Works
You don’t have to be a public policy nerd to marvel at the fact that 6,000 combined miles of city streets are plowed whenever it snows. While most people only notice things like this when they go wrong, working in local government allows access to the insider processes that keep a town ticking. When New York City’s response to the 2010 “Snowpocalypse” blizzard did go wrong, I served on the team that investigated the causes of plowing delays and implemented new preventive measures. I became a minor expert in everything from tire chains to GPS monitoring—and it was fascinating.
Even though I worked for only three of more than 50 departments, my knowledge of the city’s inner workings is miles beyond that of the average citizen. My familiarity with city services made me a good resource to friends applying for film permits or reporting an apartment without heat. But it served me even more professionally. The more I understood the interconnectedness of the pulleys and levers that comprise the system, the more effectively I could figure out which ones to pull to make something happen. And the breadth of my knowledge qualified me to move around the organization with relative ease.
2. You Invest in Your Community
There are a lot of ways to invest in your city or town—you could coach a team of ragtag softball players or cultivate turnips in a community garden. But working for your municipality means you’re investing in your community five days a week, every week of the year. When I sat down at my desk each day, I knew my efforts would be judged on the extent to which they improved the lives of New Yorkers.
Jeff Chen, Director of Analytics at the New York City Fire Department, recalls the long days that followed Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “A bunch of policy advisors, a fellow data geek, and myself huddled in a conference room at the Office of Emergency Management until the wee hours of the early morning. But over only a few hours, we re-designed a damage assessment field survey...then successfully deployed [it] only three hours after our work session.” In the wake of destruction, his job was to take concrete steps toward rebuilding. When everyone else was looking for ways to help, he was able to really make things happen from the inside out.
3. You Get to See the Results of Your Work
Some may perceive local government as less prestigious than a White House job, but I found that proximity to the issues offers the chance to see results. Take David Barker, a seven-year veteran of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation who helped transform more than 200 asphalt schoolyards into public green spaces. After completing each project, he could sit on a newly installed bench and take in the fruits of his labor. "There's nothing more rewarding than flying in a plane over New York City and being able to see all the corners of the city you've affected," he says.
Benjamin Clark, a professor of public administration at Cleveland State University's Levin College of Urban Affairs, has worked at both the local and the federal levels. “Having worked at the federal level, I always felt very disconnected from the final product or result of my work,” he says. But at the local level, “you are closer to the people and the programs. This makes it easier for someone working in local government to actually see their working have an effect on the people they are serving.”
4. You Learn to Swim Upstream
Red tape. Bureaucracy. Paper pushing. This is how most outsiders envision local government, and the stereotype is based on more than a kernel of truth. New York City, like many municipalities, has come a long way in combating the inefficiencies that are often baked into the rules themselves, but working in local government still often means swim upstream or be doomed to stagnation.
This may not sound like an ideal work environment, but I’ve found that learning to navigate the obstacles inspires creative thinking. You need a contract in place in two months and the normal process takes six? You’re going to bury your nose in procurement rules until you find a way to make it happen.
Fighting the bureaucracy also leads to opportunity. According to Barker, "There's definitely red tape at times, and some of your co-workers might be a little jaded, but a recent graduate with energy and optimism on his or her side can make a big difference—and rise quickly." Barker started his local government career after college and rose from a coordinator to a director to a district manager in a matter of a few years. Change is slow and often gets derailed, but it does happen, and being the one to make it happen gets you noticed.
5. You Meet People You Might Never Otherwise Meet
The owner of an Upper East Side pizzeria told me that his business was at risk because of the noise and scaffolding from the Second Avenue subway construction, and he asked me what I could do about it. There was, in fact, little I could do, save for printing up some fliers and posters promoting his business and those around it. Suffice it to say, we didn’t become fast friends. But it’s been five years since that conversation, and I won’t soon forget it.
The people you meet as a local government employee depends entirely on the type of position you fill. If you work in community affairs, you’re likely to meet more pizzeria owners than if you work as a statistician, like Chen. Recalling the breadth of experience of his hurricane response team, he says: “Over an intense 72-hour period, I worked with policy advisors, doctors, plumbers, cartographers, electricians, data geeks, educators, police officers, and building inspectors. It was a civic adrenaline rush.”
Like Chen, my exposure to colleagues of a variety of backgrounds burst the bubble of my fluorescent-lit cubicle. The sanitation workers whose tenure was longer than my current lifespan sometimes opposed the new technologies we introduced, but they knew more about the city’s history than I could ever hope to. And people like the pizzeria owner constantly reminded me of the varied and often urgent needs of the other people who call my city home.
Yes, working in local government offers its fair share of reasons to bang your head against your desk. But in many cities, the old regime is being pushed out and replaced by a considerable shift toward innovation. It offers the chance to turn your local pride into tangible changes—and to gather more than a few good stories along the way.