For graduate students interested in urban management careers, the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Annual Conference is the ultimate professional development and networking opportunity. We were glad and grateful to join the excitement at the 102nd ICMA Conference in September as representatives of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
Although we did take time to explore Kansas City and enjoy the sights, most of our time was steeped in content sessions and conversation with local government leaders from across the world. Here are a few key takeaways from our time in Kansas City:
Community Surveys are Invaluable.
Just as public engagement allows municipal governments to better serve their communities in efficient and effective manners, ICMA allowed us to gather front-line data on the greatest challenges the field is facing. The experience has empowered us to design our approach to remaining course work and our professional development plans.
Silos: So, So Many Silos.
In our graduate program, we talk a lot about the dangers of silos in the public sector. A lot. So much, in fact, that they can seem to be an overstated phenomenon. Content sessions drove home just how important a refined toolkit is in entering into the profession. While technology provides innovative pathways to bridge institutional and departmental divides, a comprehensive approach – from communication frameworks to inter-departmental collaborations – is needed.
Collaboration Fosters Opportunity.
We have all heard the expression, ‘thinking outside the box.’ Cities face very complex social and economic challenges like homelessness, economic development, and education. Outside-of-the-box thinking occurs when cities create spaces for more stakeholders at the table. By collaborating with other private and public entities that are faced with the same challenges, cities can turn these challenges into opportunities.
While outputs and outcomes are valuable tools to illustrate service delivery and organizational efficacy, local government impact is shaped and measured by community assessment. As we pour over quantitative methods in the classroom, it is important to stay grounded in the delivery of data. ICMA managers were engaged in energizing discussions on disruption and innovation, but their approach was informed first by a deep understanding of the communities they serve.
Building Community Must Be Deliberate.
The call to foster a diverse and inclusive workforce was at the forefront of conference conversations. The next generation of local government professionals should begin to contribute to this idea and get involved in strategic planning around recruitment and professional development within their graduate institutions. Supporting diversity and inclusion efforts on our campus benefits our school community and our capacity to lead change. It also helps to ensure that the next generation of public policy and administration students reflect the diversity of our communities.
Relationships Make Strong Organizations.
Classroom learning mentions the importance of relationship building but practical steps often are not offered. Several #ICMA2016 sessions touched upon the City Council-Manager relationship and the manager’s role of policy execution but also as a guide in the policy making process. Governing boards often consist of volunteers without a graduate degree in governance. Thus, the manager can be a mentor by establishing roles and offering open and frequent communication. In this way, managers avoid surprises and build strong working relationships that lead to effectiveness at all levels.
Pay It Forward.
After the warm welcome we received in Kansas City – from local professionals from across the world to fellow students from around the country – we returned to the LBJ School energized to spread the word among our peers about the career opportunities in local government and the value of impactful careers where we can improve lives every day. First-year public affairs students already are looking forward to joining the ICMA family in San Antonio in 2017.
Three Quick Unexpected Lessons
- The exhibit hall is a good place to network – and a great place to “shop” for souvenirs.
- Much like grad students, local government professionals mean business when they queue up for a snack buffet.
- Economic development field trips to breweries are pretty darn popular (and Boulevard Brewing Company is pretty darn delicious).
Erin Smith is a student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs (MPAff ’17). Her background is in nonprofit management and civic education. Her area of interest is state and local government. Imelda McClendon is a student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs (MPAff ’17). Her background is in non-profit management. Her interest is in local government and community development.