Week 1 at Urban Institute— Center of Labor, Human Services and Population


Week 1 at the Urban Institute


Day 1 walking into the wide glass doors and spacious marble floor of the Urban Institute located at 500 L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. was impressive. Urban Institute is a non-partisan organization founded by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 as a response to the need for more equitable social science research to develop urban communities. In their “Next 50” campaign Urban Institute sets goals to attain more progress, more funding and more sustainable impacts on the surrounding communities by improving the policy making process with research. My internship concentration is promoting a more diverse research breadth by recruiting more diverse research associates and interns. The ability of the Urban Institute to retain and gain more diverse employees is crucial to developing policy that is more reflective of urban communities.

The other interns are from universities throughout the U.S. and relocated to the DC area for the summer. They work in centers such as labor, human capital and population, urban development and international development. The interns contribute skills in public policy, international relations, data science, economics and business. Throughout the Urban Institute there is a sense of pride in each intern class and junior hires. They are also proud of the research that the associates and senior staff produce in the long term and contribute to public policy as a whole. I am impressed with the academic and research backgrounds of all my colleagues.

This summer, I am joining UNC MPA alumna, Teresa Derrick-Mills (1992) as she contributes to Urban Institutes efforts to improve the diversity of staff composition, equity and inclusion in workforce culture, and diversity and equity-respectful content and language in the research. Teresa is a principal research associate at the Urban Institute who obtained her PhD in public policy and public administration at George Washington University after using her MPA to support early care and education systems-building efforts in North Carolina for 15 years. She now studies early care and education issues, workforce development systems, juvenile justice, and various human services, and supports research and evaluation capacity building for governments and nonprofits.

Each day is a fantastic opportunity to walk through the DC neighborhoods and see famous sites such as the Capitol Building, Jefferson Memorial and the Wharf District.  It truly is remarkable location and place to be interning this summer.

500 L’Enfant Plaza

Making the City Manager Pay His Taxes

Even the best public administrators make mistakes, which is why it is important to surround yourself with excellent staff (and summer interns of course). My shining moment in my week with Finance came after reading through the proposed budget, when City Manager Lane Bailey walked in and asked me if I had any thoughts. I mentioned my interest in an “Animal Tax” in the budget ordinance that charges $1 per dog, and went on to explain my real concern – that cats were not being charged, too (clearly the tax was created by a cat lover). At this moment, City Manager Bailey realized that he wasn’t aware of this tax and had not paid it for his own dog, pulling out a dollar and handing it to the Finance Director. It was certainly a close call, but thankfully an MPA intern was there to catch the oversight.

On a more serious note, I had some interesting conversations about the budget with finance staff throughout the week. One question I had was why more line-item detail was put in this years’ budget compared to last year. Apparently, a council member (or multiple) requested more information compared to last years’ budget, which mostly had totals for different departments and funds. This prompted another discussion about how the council members shape the budget details and priorities, and specifically how these areas can change with changes in elected officials. This is especially true for Salisbury, as all 5 council seats come up for election at the same time every 2 years, meaning the council could actually be 5 new and completely different people from cycle to cycle.

Another interesting part of Salisbury’s budget is the inclusion of capital replacement funds. That is, the budget already allocates money to replace capital assets when they reach their designated use life, without departments having to request new funds whenever a piece of equipment gets old. For example, when a computer is 4 years old (not sure on the lifetime assigned to a computer but go with it) funds are already there to replace that computer without requiring a department to complain about a slow computer and send in a request for new computers in their next budget. You may have the same question I did – what do you do with the old computer? The City of Salisbury utilizes a website called GovDeals.com, which allows local governments to sell equipment to anyone (YES, EVEN YOU!) and make some money back for the City. Supposedly one municipality used the site to sell a whole water tower for $2, but they saved the $50,000 it would have cost them to tear it down as the buyer is responsible for picking it up (I don’t really know how the process of taking a water tower works because I doubt it fits in a truck bed, but I assume the buyer paid for it to be taken apart himself).

I would like to end by mentioning a tougher meeting I attended with Finance this week. Essentially, a department was getting feedback on potentially requesting an expensive but important backup generator setup. The setup would cost nearly $80,000, but would be the backup if the power and first generator went out at the location, potentially providing power to crucial systems during an emergency. Further, the setup would also provide power to the designated Emergency Operations Center that houses those systems, which is a crucial location to have power in emergency situations. It is tough to spend a lot of money on something you hope you never need to use, and while the decision seemed to be in favor of the project, the question then becomes about when you pay for it, especially around fiscal year end.

That does it for Finance Week. Feel free to check out Salisbury’s proposed budget here, and check back later to see the adopted budget (fun fact: Salisbury’s adopted budget includes an Addendum that lists changes between the proposed and the adopted budgets).

Come back next week for Planning!

As a reward for making it through this long post with no pictures, here is my current fav restaurant in Salisbury, Yummi Banh Mi:

Yummi Banh Mi – Vietnamese Streetfood Restaurant



Week Three: The Beauty of Participatory Budgeting

For many public servants, the democratic process is viewed as a key to success. Personally, I have always loved this aspect of local government. Local government has the capability to impact people’s lives in a direct way, which is why it is so essential to have residents’ opinions on the community.


In the City of Durham Budget & Management Services office, this is of the utmost importance to all who work there. The department is implementing a new process of “participatory budgeting.” $2.4 million dollars has been set aside for projects decided on by those who live in different parts of Durham. The initiatives are currently being voted on, and the projects with the most votes will be implemented in the next year. Much of my work the past few days has been around this process, as voting comes to a close at the end of May.

Through participatory budgeting outreach I have interacted with constituents in ways I never have before. One way I have been able to reach out to residents is through text messaging. This communication channel, allows folks in the office to hold a conversation with anyone who may have questions, instead of just sending out an email blast that will have little response.

Residents can vote either online or in-person on a paper ballot. Whenever we have new responses cast on a paper ballot, we  input them online so that everyone’s vote is included. I have been able to add folks’ votes to the online server, allowing me to see what their preferences are, and get a better idea of the City of Durham.

In addition to participatory budgeting, I have been included on the work to implement the City’s Strategic Plan adopted last summer. The City of Durham has five general goals and each department is assigned to one, and they work together to form objectives and initiatives that can be achieved under each goal. Staff will be presenting next month on the progress made on these initiatives, and as the departments work on their presentations we have been working with them to ensure they are prepared. This has allowed me to better understand general strategic planning, as well as the future of the City of Durham. A photo from one of these meetings can be seen below.

That’s all for this week! Stay tuned for next week, when I’ll update everyone on how budget presentations go this Wednesday and Thursday for each department- it’s sure to be a good time.

Week Two: Diving into the Budget

Hello again! This has been a whirlwind of a week, so I hope you enjoy following along as I explain all I was able to experience. Right now the Budget & Management Services Department is putting together the Fiscal Year 2020, or FY20, budget. This means that most of the work I am involved in is ensuring that numbers are aligned and descriptions for departments are accurate. Reading through the current 286 page document (it will continue to get even longer) has allowed me to better understand initiatives being taken on by the City of Durham. This has also helped me to improve my Excel skills as I work to make changes to the numbers that need updating. If you would like to see an example of Durham’s previous budget, FY19 documentation can be found            here.

When I am not working on the FY20 budget, I have an individual budget assignment that has been assigned to me by my supervisors, Ben Kittelson and Pat Madej. Currently I am analyzing Durham local sales taxes from 2008-2018 to create an analysis of changes to collection, policy, and rates over the ten year timeline. Most of the data is coming from North Carolina’s Department of Revenue and old files from the City of Durham.

As I said in my post last week, I also was able to attend #ELGL19, which was put on by Engaging Local Government Leaders. On Wednesday, there was an Innovation Summit, where leaders in the field discussed best practices for finding creative solutions in local government. As someone breaking into this work, it was fascinating to hear more about what other governments have been doing, and how I can work to improve innovation in whatever role I serve in going forward.

Thursday and Friday were the main days of the conference, with a variety of sessions discussing changes being made by local government leaders around the country. One of my favorite sessions was called, “Engaging Local Government Employees.” The leaders on this panel discussed ways that cities and counties can improve the wellness of employees, and continue to recruit the best and brightest minds.  My favorite photo can be seen below, of Brian Farmer (MPA ’20) and myself, imitating Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson.

The conference finished Friday afternoon, and right after, folks from our department went back to the office. Pat and I attended a meeting with the Durham Emergency Communications Center, where we discussed the end of FY19 with staff.

On Monday, most of my day consisted of HR workshops but during the breaks in the day I went to the Budget & Management Services office to prepare for the City Council meeting that night. Before the Council adopts the FY20 budget, they must ensure that the democratic process is being followed, and share information with the public. Members of the community gathered to hear more about changes and proposals that the City Manager is recommending to the Council. A photo from the event can be seen below.

Residents brought forward their thoughts on the positives and negatives of the budget. Many discussed the proposed increase to police staff, as well as a request for a livable wage for part-time City employees. The Council has a lot to ponder before adopting the budget but I look forward to keeping everyone updated as we continue.

Introducing the PWE and our MPA Summer Bloggers!

It’s May! And it has been too long since I’ve posted, but we have been doing so much work to get our Class of 2019 graduated. We had a total of 41 MPA students graduate this May, and we are so proud of them. Most of them have jobs already, and they are solidly equipped with the education and skills needed to go out there and lead! Stay tuned for a later post on what some of them are up to.

Another thing that happens in May is the beginning of Professional Work Experience (commonly referred to as the PWE) for our current MPA students. It is similar to an internship except that this really is about leading and managing some sort of project. These PWE’s are higher level opportunities where you will actually be contributing more than answering phones or filing. And each May, we invite a few of our students who will be taking part in their PWE’s to blog about their experience.

Our PWE Coordinator (and UNC MPA grad), the wonderful Susan Austin completed a brief interview with me to give us a little frame of reference for the PWE and our Summer Bloggers. Read on, and follow the blogs which will be posted weekly. They’ll surely give you an idea for how MPA education is put to work.

Cara: What is your role, and how long have you been with the MPA program at UNC?
Susan: My title is Associate Director of Professional Work Experience (PWE) and Alumni Relations. Whew! One of my primary responsibilities is to work with all students on their required PWE. I started working with the MPA program in 2006 after joining the School of Government in 2001. I’m also an alumna – Class of ’97.

Cara: Can you talk about what the Professional Work Experience (PWE) is?
Susan: The PWE is an opportunity for our students to apply their classroom learning in a real-life setting, develop their competencies, and gain additional professional experience. The PWE is always one of the highlights of their time in the program.

Cara: How many MPA students are enrolled in a PWE this summer?
Susan: There are 23 students completing their PWE this summer. 13 with local governments, 4 in state agencies, 1 with the federal government, and 5 in nonprofit organizations. The ratio of students in different sectors varies with the interests of the students in each cohort.

Cara: Please introduce our student bloggers for this summer and what roles they’ll be taking on?
Susan: I’m excited about our summer bloggers! They are:
• Courtney Cooper-Lewter with the Chatham County, NC Manager’s Office
• Micayla Costa with the Urban Institute in Washington, DC
• Brian Farmer with the City of Salisbury, NC Manager’s Office
• Hallee Haygood with the City of Durham, NC Budget & Management Department
• Sydney Lawrence with the US EPA Office of Air Quality Planning Standards, Policy Analysis & Communications in Durham, NC
• Karson Nelson with the NC Department of Public Instruction Superintendent’s Office in Raleigh, NC

Cara: What do you hope our readers gain from our Student bloggers on their PWE experiences?
Susan: This is a great opportunity for readers to understand the scope of career opportunities an MPA degree opens up for our graduates. For those with an interest in public service, learning about the student experiences provides an inside look into the practical work that makes our communities better places to live.

Cara: Where will you be reading the blogs from this summer?
Susan: Ha! Well I read all of them all summer so that will vary. My favorite place will be at the lake.

The 2019 Deil Wright Lecture: Professor Donald Kettl

Here on the blog I’ve talked a lot about the opportunities MPA students have to work and learn from fellow students across platforms, faculty, alumni, and various public service professionals. The Carolina MPA Program also provides students a yearly opportunity to interact with distinguished scholars in the field of Public Administration. The Deil S. Wright Lecture, started by alumni in 2002, invites a prominent voice in the field handpicked by faculty to come speak at the School of Government.

This year’s speaker was Professor Don Kettl, from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Volcker Alliance, the Brookings Institution and the Partnership for Public Service. Prof Kettl is well known and loved by UNC MPA students as someone who literally wrote the book on Public Administration – his Politics of the Administrative Process IS the textbook we use for our survey course in Institutions and Values. Before the lecture, MPA students took Prof Kettl to the North Carolina Basketball museum and posed for a photo with our tea kettle (affectionately dubbed by students as the “the Don Kettl”). His lecture discussed the current state of Federalism and pointed to the role of Intergovernmental Relations that underlies many of our country’s more pressing political issues such as immigration and health care.  

Above: Don Kettl’s signature on my textbook!

Below: Don Kettl poses with MPA Students holding a tea kettle named in his honor.

In addition to hearing Prof Kettl speak about Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations, I also enjoyed the chance to learn more about who Deil Wright was as a person. We extensively studied his work in my Intergovernmental Relations course. After the lecture, I was speaking with Dr. Wright’s children who told me how every night in his study he would spend an hour calling past students to check on their personal and professional lives and offer his advice and help them make connection to other alumni working in similar fields or on similar issues.

The lecture was a great experience for me to both connect with a scholar whose work I admired and a chance to learn a little more about the history of a figure who was so important in the development of the MPA program.


The Collaborative Cohort Culture of the MPA Program at UNC

There’s lots of energy around the MPA wing at the UNC School of Government right now. Many different people are working hard with their eyes on the future.

Second year students like myself are bearing down to write our portfolios, a lengthy document that graduating MPA students submit to satisfy the thesis requirements of the MPA program and the Graduate School. We are also working hard at writing cover letters and polishing our resumes as we apply for jobs to start after graduation. First year students are working on their own resumes and cover letters as they apply for their Professional Work Experience (PWE) internships for the summer. Today begins a period of a few weeks where interviewers (many of whom are MPA alumni themselves) are coming to campus from a variety of local and state government organizations to speak with prospective interns.

They aren’t even the only interviewees in the building. Today we also began welcoming prospective students to campus for admission to the program. Our applicants come from a diverse background of undergraduate programs and work experiences from Environmental Science to Public Policy to the Military and all levels of government. I distinctly remember my interview experience and recall the mixed emotions of feeling both nervous and excited. I feel like I can relate to every applicant I’ve met and I enjoy learning about their interests and ambitions.

My name tag from my admissions interview exactly 2 years ago.


What strikes me as a through-line connecting each group is the collaborative nature of the cohort structure. Working and learning together builds a very strong culture. Through group work and general shared experience, students build strong academic and social bonds. While some graduate school programs have a reputation of being ultra-competitive and cut-throat, the culture of the MPA program is welcoming and cooperative. Though the process of writing our portfolios is difficult, we have each other to lean on. We help each other through peer-editing, recommending sources to cite, and offering genuine emotional support. We have lots of support from last year’s graduating class, who have kept in touch and offer us thoughtful advice. We also help each other looking for jobs and regularly email postings to each other based on knowing our peers skills and interests. Having gone through the PWE interview search process the second year class is able to offer perspective and advice to the first years as they go through the process themselves. Both first and second year students joined prospective students for lunch today and shared in conversation about career goals and our visions of 21st century public service.

The collaborative cohort culture is a huge part of what brought me to the program and what has sustained me throughout my time here.

A Who’s Who of Famous MPA’s

We often discuss on this blog that students come to the MPA program with a variety of career goals across all sectors and levels of government. For my first blog post of 2019, I wanted to have some fun and highlight some notable or famous people that have MPA diplomas hanging on their walls. I’ll also highlight how something each MPA alum does connects to our program here at UNC.

Klaus Schwab is the founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, an international institution for public-private cooperation. He received an MPA from Harvard in addition to his doctorates in Engineering and Economics. The WEF’s collaborative approach between sectors is at the heart of much of what UNC MPA students learn about in courses like “Institutions and Values,” units on collaboration and innovation in “Organizational Theory” and “Public Service Leadership” and electives like “Economic Development” “Community Development,” “Intergovernmental Relations,” and “Collaborative Governance.” Schwab spoke at Harvard about how important his MPA was to his establishment of the WEF. He said that “nothing has influenced [his] life more than” his MPA experience, considering it “an essential pillar in the buildup of the WEF.”

Many students come to the program with an interest in achieving leadership positions in Criminal Justice. Frank Spangenberg got his MPA from Harvard to further his career in Law Enforcement with the NYPD. He later further bolstered his academic record with a PhD in Criminal Justice from John Jay. Despite his phenomenal academic record, he is better known for his ground-breaking run as a contestant on Jeopardy. He was the first contestant to break $100,000 and for many years held the record for most money won. He went on to return for a variety of other Jeopardy winners tournaments, including the 2005 Tournament of Champions during his time as an MPA student. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that trivia is a common activity and source of bonding for many current MPA students at UNC. Affectionately dubbed the “Beeracrats,” a group of current UNC MPA’s are a veritable force at trivia nights across Chapel Hill and Carrboro (especially at Linda’s). Per the then rules of Jeopardy, Frank donated a large share of his initial winnings to a Gift of Love Hospice. Prospective MPA students interested in non-profit organizations may connect with this video of Frank telling a story of a chance encounter with a volunteer from the Hospice who told him how much his gift meant to the organization.

Our next MPA did not appeared on Jeopardy, but she did star in the 1999 Mystery Thriller “Double Jeopardy.” Even though Ashley Judd roots for the wrong color blue on the basketball court (she’s an avid Kentucky supporter), she showed her heart is in the right place and committed to public service when she earned an MPA from Harvard in 2010. She told the New York Times too that she wanted to get an MPA so she could “immerse [her]self in some very serious, earnest, practical learning with people who have literally dedicated all they have to public service.” Some come through UNC’s MPA program to work in government agencies, but others want to work with nonprofits to advance causes they believe in, operationalizing their MPA-knowledge as activists and change makers. Many students have specific policy goals to achieve, like ending sexual violence, combating homelessness, expanding affordable housing, or increasing access to the arts. As someone pursing the Non-Profit Management Concentration, I have the pleasure of learning alongside these students everyday. Judd uses skills from her MPA degree as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Empowerment of Adolescent Girls. She appreciated that like herself, MPA classmates “were shamelessly unapologetic about being do-gooders.” She is now continuing her education, enrolling in a PhD program at The University of California-Berkeley..


Ashley Judd celebrates her MPA graduation. Though this photo was taken at Harvard, we approve of the Carolina Blue in the globes! (Photo by Josh Reynolds, Associated Press)


Continuing our connection to Hollywood, the memoir of Charles “Sully” Sullenberger was adapted into the 2016 blockbuster film “Sully.”  Starring Tom Hanks, it tells the story of how Sullenberger successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after an engine failure, saving the lives of everyone on board. You may have already known that about Sully, but what you may not have known is that he has a deep commitment to public service. He served in the Air Force and also earned an MPA from Northern Colorado University in 1979. Now, we can’t promise you that Tom Hanks will portray you on the big screen if you get an MPA, but you will learn about key leadership skills and competencies that will help you manage difficult situations that have serious consequences for those you serve. See this previous blog post about connections to between the MPA program and Emergency Management.

I hope that this journey through famous MPA’s has been as fun to read as it was to research! We at the UNC MPA program hope that everyone had a happy holiday. We are looking forward to a new year exploring more MPA Matters!




Inclusion and Public Service: A Reflection on Authenticity

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending a thought-provoking and inspiring event produced by the UNC MPA Program Diversity Committee. Entitled “Inclusion and Public Service,” the event brought together a panel of UNC MPA Alumni to discuss their perspectives on the topics of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity from their experience as professionals in the field. The panel was moderated by Eric Marsh (Class of 2017, Strategic Initiatives Analyst for Durham County) and featured Monica Chaparro (Class of 2005, Strategic Planning & Performance Manager for the City of Raleigh), Faith Thompson (Class of 2003, Public Housing Director for the Town of Chapel Hill) and Dan Goetz (Class of 1977, Retired Project Manager for RTI International, Currently working with Organizing against Racism and the People’s Alliance in Durham).

Pictured above are the panelists with moderator Eric Marsh

One of the strengths of the MPA program at UNC is the extensive alumni network. Having alumni share their knowledge, both during the panel and informal conversation afterwards, was an excellent resource for students. The panel allowed students to further engage with topics we often read about and discuss in class and view them through a practical, real-life lens. I have been extensively thinking and writing about diversity, equity, and inclusion after attending an intensive training from the Racial Equity Institute as part of my own work in the Arts Community. I especially appreciated this opportunity to carry on the conversation of equity in public administration with my colleagues, professors, and alumni.

One of my main takeawayswas around the concept of authenticity. I heard this word come up again and again throughout the panel. A theme emerged that workplaces who succeed in these areas create an atmosphere where all employees feel they don’t have to alter who they are to come to work. I really connected with the way Monica explained this: “I bring my authentic self to work and my differences add value. I have a commitment to who I am. I bring that to work with me and I don’t feel compelled to assimilate to be someone that isn’t me.” Monica also discussed how this goes beyond demographic diversity. She and other panelists also discussed the importance of diversity of thought within organizations, citing the quote “the clash of ideas is the sound of freedom.” Faith discussed her work supporting authentic conversations among employees and urging people to thoughtfully examine stereotypes. She stressed it can be difficult to implement what people suggest but “I can’t ignore their feelings because I asked them to share.” She also talked about how this work fostered collaboration between different departments (such as Solid Waste and Business Management). Finally, Dan shared that he felt mapping where the power is in an organization is a very important part of inclusion, particularly in considering who is consulted when big decisions are made. He also discussed how many conversations can fall apart because we don’t have a shared set of language and definitions.

These issues exist across all corners of the public service field. As administrators in training, we need the intellectual, analytical, and emotional tools to engage with diverse communities to ensure equitable service delivery and workplace environments. The MPA Program, through coursework, events like the panel, and engagement with alumni can give an aspiring public service professional some of the tools they need to consider equity in their personal and professional lives. One event, panel, or graduate degree does not solve systemic problems, but it does give motivated students some effective tools, language, and knowledge to bring with them into their future public service careers.

MPA Immersion Weekend: Collaborative Governance

Recently, the UNC MPA program held its annual fall Immersion Course, focusing on the topic of Collaborative Governance. The Immersion is an optional course that gives online and on-campus students the opportunity to come together for a full, intensive weekend of instruction and thoughtful group work and discussion for credit in the MPA program. This semester’s course was led by Professors John Stephens and Rick Morse and included 43 students, 30 from the on-line program and 13 from the on-campus format. Students completed coursework online in advance and all read the same articles and case studies to prepare for the weekend. The course featured several panels of experts from the field who were able to share their observations and lessons learned from their professional experiences

My classmate Timothy Shober attended the Immersion and he told me he really enjoyed the panels and getting to learn from “professionals from around the triangle who actively participate in collaborative governance efforts.” Another on-campus student, Jake Levitas, added that he liked hearing from “practitioners focusing on case studies the students had reviewed.” Timothy appreciated that the panelists viewed the issues “though a practical lens rather than an academic lens.”


The Immersion Crew smiles for a photo in front of UNC’s School of Government in Chapel Hill.


Reflecting on the weekend, Jake told me “the immersion is a great way to meet new people.” He especially liked getting to meet students from the online program he might not have gotten to otherwise. Timothy added that the on-line students bring a lot more work experience across many sectors (public, private, non-profit, military) to the conversation, and that many students had relevant and thoughtful examples to share from their current full-time positions. Over the course of the weekend, students from the online program had the opportunity and network with each other as well the on-campus students and the faculty. Students got a chance to learn about each others’ interests and career goals over meals and during snack breaks. A reception with alumni on Friday evening offered still more opportunities to for student to network and learn more about the field.

Summarizing his experience, Timothy said “my biggest take away was that collaboration is not an easy, efficient, or fluid process but it allows groups to leverage pooled resources to achieve better outcomes.” He believes that the collaborative process helps prevent “siloed” and unconnected services in communities across many providers in government, non-profit, and private organizations.