Equity is a word that is floating around more in media coverage and professional discussions as Black Lives Matter protests continue this week. There are calls for dramatic policy changes to local, state, and federal governments around the issue of policing, but also other areas that can dramatically improve the lives of the historically oppressed – education, employment, social programs, and housing among them. In connection with my post last week, about making systemic change, I chose to write about a tool that can assist policymakers in creating more equitable policy, as well as an example of ncIMPACT’s current work in this arena.
One solution in the equity toolbox is to rely on data-driven policy in order to concentrate resources in the most needed areas, rather than relying on tradition or the judgment of those in power. This data does not just consist of surveys or graphs, but also listening to communities and respecting their expertise and self-determination in order to create policies and programs that fit them and their needs. Although this is often more time-intensive, policy made without the substantive participation of key stakeholders is often less effective, and may not have the intended outcomes for which it was created. ncIMPACT’s study designs often rely on mixed-methods and participatory research in order to discover needs and pilot solutions to equity-related problems, and I am fortunate to be working on several of them this summer.
One such project is the survey that ncIMPACT conducted with local government officials to discover the impact of COVID-19 on their organizations and communities and see how the School of Government can best respond. I will be completing the qualitative analysis of several open-ended questions for the 200 or so respondents from 89 NC counties. This survey will give us the chance to measure, in semi-real time, the impacts of COVID on a state-wide scale, as well as in regions with diverse economies and risk factors for the pandemic. Being able to complete work that will likely directly impact the SOG’s programs and products during this time is a very fulfilling professional experience. Although it may not directly be related to racial equity or police reform, COVID is already having disparate impacts on communities of color, which is likely to continue even after a vaccine is available. Understanding how local governments are responding, and what support they need, is a unique role the SOG can play in mitigating the negative effects of the pandemic and making North Carolina a more equitable place.
We’ve all been inundated with news about the coronavirus crisis that the world is coping with these days. Throughout the ordeal, public administrators remain on the front lines of the pandemic serving in many roles at all levels of government. Living through a time of crisis is unsettling, but I am encouraged by the committed public servants I interact with each week both in my PWE and in the MPA program. Students showed up in class this week despite working twelve (or more) hour days responding to the crisis. They work in local budget offices and health departments and emergency management. They serve in state and federal agencies, preparing their communities for the ongoing situation and the recovery that will follow.
Two weeks ago (has it really been only two weeks?) I drove down Main Street in Canton on the way to my PWE and noticed that downtown was thriving. Workers stood on ladders erecting signs for new businesses. Shoppers passed through the doors of boutiques. Tourists sat on the patios of the local restaurants. Since then, measures taken in response to COVID-19 have resulted in rapid and dramatic changes. When I drove through town this morning, the sidewalks were deserted. Except for a small number of residents venturing out for supplies or employees traveling to their shifts, the streets remain noticeably quieter.
Changes brought on by this pandemic have fundamentally altered the way we live, forcing everyone to adapt. In many ways, being a student in the MPA@UNC program has prepared me for working in the current environment. As other managers, employees, and students face a learning curve transitioning to remote work and distant learning, my PWE and school work continue uninterrupted. Like everyone else, I wake up wondering what changes the day’s news will bring. And, of course, the coronavirus has disrupted much of what I do every day. I am forced to balance new responsibilities while remaining focused on finishing my PWE, writing research papers, giving final presentations, and completing final exams. For now, though, I am grateful to be part of a program that has enabled me to adjust to uncertainty and confront new challenges every day.
warning: this post discusses emergencies and coronavirus
Public crises are scary, challenging, and unpredictable. As a student, avid traveler, and daughter of someone severely immunocompromised, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a scary reality that I wasn’t expecting to experience ever in life. As a future public service leader currently working in local government, this experience serves as a unique lesson to learn how much public administrators are involved in emergency management. Emergency management is the coordination of resources and responsibilities to reduce the harmful effects of disasters, hazards, and crises. In times like these, the public relies on public administrators from varying fields and levels to provide accurate information and support as needed. So, in times of emergencies, what exactly do public administrators do?
Traditionally, emergency management encompasses four main categories: prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery. And public administrators are involved in every step along the way.
Prevention: Prevention is the creation of deliberate steps and strategies to minimize damage. In thinking about any disaster, prevention is KEY! For example, let’s think about a beach town that is prone to hurricanes. Public administrators can establish building code that is intended to prevent damage from the winds of a hurricane. Requiring that all new buildings undergo this inspection will allow for less building damage in the community in the future and less money spent on repairs and cleanup.
Preparedness: Preparedness is instituting measures designed to enhance awareness and response to crises. Preparedness is a necessary step after prevention. A good example of preparedness would be an in-school tornado or fire drill so that students are aware of the correct response during one of those crises. This can help minimize damage and harm to everyone involved.
Response: Response is the coordination of resources to minimize the impact of crises. In the case of an emergency, responses are necessary to mitigate the crisis. Given the current pandemic, this is where I see public administration most at work. For example, the institution of travel bans, airport screenings, school closures, and online classes instead of in-person classes are all examples of public administration’s response to coronavirus. This is all an attempt to minimize the possible spread of the virus.
Recovery: Recovery is the return of the community to normal or near-normal conditions. Even after the crisis is gone, there is still work to be done. Public administrators work towards “business as usual” by providing clean-up and support. An example of recovery is FEMA with home repairs and temporary housing assistance. This is how public administrators work to stabilize a community after a tragedy.
As we move through this time of concern and uncertainty with the coronavirus (COVID-19), we can rest assured that those who took the oath to serve the public are working hard to keep us as safe as possible now and will be prepared to support us as we begin to stabilize.
A special thank you to the public administrators, medical care providers, first responders, grocery store employees, and anyone else who continues working to make sure our communities have what they need as we go through this process together.
This week, I saw a governor being interviewed about the coronavirus. He described his state’s response to the outbreak and emphasized the need for competent public service leadership during the crisis. “This is government,” he explained. “This is what it’s about. This is the mobilization, the skill, the expertise to manage a government.” Across the US, as Americans are adjusting to a new way of life, public servants are stepping up to tackle the challenges brought on by COVID-19. As we know, there are capable, well-trained experts in local, state, and federal government who have the skills necessary to effectively respond to nearly any situation. The American public can always depend upon public services to continue, even when life around them seems to be coming to a halt.
Other than a run on the grocery stores, life in the town of Canton continues (almost) as normal. Children are still in school. The baristas at the local coffee shop are still serving up lattes. And people are still coming to town hall to schedule services and pay bills. Today I met with the town manager to talk about Canton’s response to COVID-10. The town’s emergency services employees have been preparing for the arrival of COVID-19 for weeks by practicing extra precautionary measures. After a discussion about cleaning methods and hand washing, my conversation with the town manager naturally shifted to collaboration. Officials in neighboring Buncombe County declared a state of emergency yesterday, prompting surrounding municipalities to release recommendations and information about their own approaches to the outbreak. In Haywood County, local and county officials along with nonprofit organizations are coordinating responses, ensuring that they are adequately prepared and that public services go uninterrupted. Despite the stress of the last week, completing the PWE during this ordeal has been a great learning experience in crisis management. Seeing local government function effectively is reassuring at a time like this. Dedicated public servants who continue to show up everyday offer an encouraging reminder that life goes on even in the midst of chaos.
Remember to wash your hands! If you need directions or inspiration, check out Gloria Gaynor’s instructional video.
Throughout February, my posts have featured women in local government, focusing on their roles and highlighting their contributions to the community. This week, we meet Kristina Smith, alderwoman for the town of Canton.
Many individuals point to a specific event that inspired them to enter public service. Hopeful MPA applicants may include descriptions of inspirational experiences in their personal statements. Politicians often tell stories describing encounters that motivated them to seek office. When I asked Alderwoman Kristina Smith what compelled her to enter public service, she pointed to a series of events. The city council meeting she attended as a young girl. The speech given by a president calling on individuals to get involved to make their communities a better place. An unexpected opportunity to lead in her new town.
The city council meeting Kristina attended as a young girl scout marked her first exposure to local government. She was struck by the diversity of leadership on the council. Following this experience, she realized serving in a leadership position does not require a specific type of person with a certain set of skills. Anyone can lead if they are willing to take on the challenge! Years later, Kristina moved to Canton with her family and became involved in her community. When the opportunity to run for local office arose, Kristina accepted
the challenge and was elected in 2017. In her new role as Alderwoman, Kristina enjoys engaging the community, problem solving, and always searching for the best outcome for Canton, regardless of the issue.
Given her experience, I asked Kristina if she had any advice to share with women interested in local government careers. Don’t doubt yourself or question your abilities, she said, “rather than asking yourself ‘can I lead?’ tell yourself, ‘I’m ready to lead.’” She emphasized the power of transferable skills and how beneficial they can be in taking on new opportunities. “There isn’t a single role for you,” she remarked, “think about all of your experiences and how they complement different roles.” As Kristina learned in that city council meeting, anyone can lead. The only limitations you have are the ones you put on yourself.
During the month of February, my posts will feature Women in Local Government, focusing on their roles and highlighting their contributions to the community. This week, we meet Teresa and Sandy, two individuals committed to serving the town of Canton in their roles as Accounting Clerks.
When visitors walk through the double glass door of the William G. Stamey Municipal Building in downtown Canton, NC, they are typically welcomed by a friendly greeting from Sandy or Teresa. Beyond being the first town employees that residents interact with, Sandy and Teresa keep the front office running smoothly by managing a diverse list of responsibilities. They field questions about trash pick up, board meetings, water services, facility rentals, and more, a task that often requires a lot of patience. Sandy and Teresa warmly welcomed me when I began my PWE and have since been very kind to answer my ongoing questions, including the ones for this interview! As they explained, to work in these positions, a person must have a strong understanding of local government and “everything that happens in town hall.” Serving in the position of Accounting Clerk involves more than just answering questions; they also process financial transactions and collect payments. Occasionally, their duties take them outside the office where they have participated in everything from working the Labor Day concert to driving a utility vehicle alongside town officials in the Christmas parade.
Despite the challenge of having to deal with complaints, Sandy and Teresa had a lot to say when I asked what they enjoy most about their jobs. They described how working in public service was more fulfilling than their previous positions in the private sector. Leaving at the end of a day knowing they have helped someone solve a difficult problem makes the job enjoyable. When describing the benefits of working in local government, they emphasized teamwork, learning, and community involvement. With a small staff, events like the Labor Day Festival requires months of planning and involves staff from every department. This is a point that might surprise people. As Sandy explained, “residents wake up and their trash can is empty or they show up to a large event like the Labor Day Festival and think it just happens. They don’t often think about the hours of work it takes from people behind the scenes.” According to Sandy and Teresa, having a good team not only makes a job more manageable, it also makes it fun.
Another perk to working in local government which Sandy and Teresa discussed is the opportunity to learn more about how the town functions. Years into their careers, they both indicated that they continue to learn something new every day. Learning about local government helps foster a better connection with the town and facilitates community involvement. For this series, I conclude every interview with the same question: What advice do you have for someone interested in working in local government? Their suggestion: Get involved in the community! At this point in the interview another staff person wandered into the conversation, and she seconded this recommendation. She also highlighted the importance of staying informed through attending board meetings or reading the minutes (available online). When I asked Sandy and Teresa if they would recommend a career in local government, they responded without hesitation, “yes!”
I have often heard local government employees explain that they love their jobs because each day brings new challenges and opportunities. The same has been true in my PWE. Last week, the town manager sent me an unexpected and fun assignment. I planned to start this week continuing my research on local ordinances but instead had the opportunity to write a report for the town’s planned upcoming dog park. Prior to this week, I knew nothing about dog parks, so I really enjoyed researching the topic and writing the report. Did you know the top citizen priorities for dog parks are typically cleanliness, shade, and water? I discovered best practices related to everything from amenities to location to surface materials!
Through my PWE, I am learning more about the range of responsibilities local government employees tackle every day. In Canton, that means completing tasks like delivering recycling bins, meeting with local business leaders, and planning events. As I mentioned previously, I have no local government experience. Completing my internship in a small town with a limited number of staff provides me with the opportunity to gain a broad perspective of duties and expectations required of town employees. While functioning with a smaller staff can be challenging, it also means that town employees develop a diverse skill set. The dog park is part of a larger parks and recreation improvement project, and I’m excited to see the transformation. As I continue in my PWE, I look forward to sharing with you the details of other assignments that come my way. With multiple projects planned, it’s an exciting time to be working with the Town of Canton!
Week two has been filled with research. Lots of research. In my first day on the job, I was handed a large binder containing the Town Code of Ordinances. I spent a couple of days reading through the binder familiarizing myself with the Town’s laws. The Town Code is available online, but I liked having the binder. It felt very official. Starting off with this assignment turned out to be really constructive given my lack of experience in local government and limited knowledge of the laws in my Town. After all, it would be difficult to work effectively without knowing the Town rules, right?
One of the benefits of completing my PWE here in the town manager’s office is the opportunity to work on projects like the one I completed this week. After taking the time to read the Canton Code of Ordinances, I began conducting research on sections that town officials expressed an interest in updating. My report this week related to the Town Sign Ordinance. I reviewed the current Sign Ordinance and researched ordinances in comparable municipalities then provided some recommendations in a report to the town manager. Throughout this process, I spent a lot of time searching Municode, reviewing Supreme Court cases, and reading through state statutes. Next week the Locating Legal Resources Activity is due in my Law class, and after all this research in my PWE, I am much better prepared to tackle that assignment! My experience this week also confirmed just how relevant that Law class is to a public service career. Next week I will be working on a really fun project that I am excited to share with you! Stay tuned!
On Monday, I began my PWE in the office of the town manager in Canton, North Carolina. Canton is located in Haywood County just twenty miles outside of Asheville. Surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains. Canton attracts adventure seekers who enjoy hiking the surrounding trails that include popular landmarks like Cold Mountain, floating down the Pigeon River that runs through town, or visiting downtown businesses that feature delicious southern food and locally made goods. In the center of town sits a large papermill that manufactures Starbucks coffee cups, juice cartons, and other paper products. Due to the central location and large size of the mill, the locals affectionately refer to Canton as “Papertown.”
Given the recent challenges across the United States with confederate statues, building names, and town names, public service leaders are charged with listening and navigating highly emotional and challenging spaces to best serve the public. In Chapel Hill, there were challenges with Silent Sam on campus. Silent Sam is a confederate statue that once stood on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus in the upper quad (McCorkle Place). It was granted to the University in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In recent years, there has been growing controversy over the existence and placement of the statue on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. After years of debate and days of protest, Silent Sam was torn down the day right before the first day of classes in August 2018. (To learn more about Silent Sam’s History, click here).
However, these challenges reach farther than UNC-Chapel Hill and its surrounding towns. Currently, I work for Chatham County Manager’s Office and we are navigating the removal of a Confederate statue at our Historic Courthouse in Pittsboro, NC. Chatham is a neighboring county to Orange County (where Chapel Hill and Carrboro are located). Since March of 2019, there has been a large push to remove the Confederate Statue placed at the Courthouse in the Town’s center. (To learn more about the contention in Chatham around the monument, click here). The list of places working through these types of challenges does not end here. Given the current times, these are some of the challenges that public service leaders are continuing to face.
To support future public service leaders and current practitioners, the MPA Diversity Committee hosted a breakfast panel about managing conflict and promoting inclusion in difficult political climates on 11/6/19. The Committee brought three panelists that represented the city, county, and non-profit contexts of public service.
For the city context, the Diversity Committee invited Maurice Jones who is the current Town Manager of Chapel Hill and served as the previous Town Manager of Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally. Beverly Scurry represented the county context by speaking about her experience as the Orange County Board of Health Strategic Plan Manager and community organizer in Alamance County. For the non-profit sector, the Committee invited Chanel Nestor who serves as an Adjunct Lecturer of Rural Sociology at NC A&T and Farmers’ Market Coordinator of the Authentically Alamance Farmers’ Market Network in Alamance County. Chanel was able to speak not only about the non-profit context, but also the rural context.
The panel served as a great opportunity to learn about implementing inclusive measures and goals into strategic planning, balancing competing values, and equity implementation in rural versus urban settings. Each member of the panel brought a unique perspective from their personal and professional experiences of navigating difficult political climates through managing conflict and continuing to promote inclusion. The panelists’ different specialties demonstrated the true intersectionality and opportunity for inclusion in public service.