Public Policy Forum Blog

3rd Quarter 2017 President's Message

Imagine if Aaron Rodgers announced his retirement in the week preceding the Packers’ first playoff game? Or if Mike McCarthy announced he was immediately departing to coach another team?

While not quite as cataclysmic as those scenarios, the recent departures of the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County budget directors just days before the onset of 2018 budget deliberations will have impacts for both governments. The City’s long-time director, Mark Nicolini, retired in early September; while the County’s director, Steve Kreklow, recently left to become administrator of the Village of Germantown.

Both individuals are widely respected for their knowledge, experience, and professionalism, and both played integral roles in making the very difficult decisions that were necessary to produce balanced City and County budget proposals this year. Their departures will leave big gaps in institutional knowledge, and their calm and esteemed voices will be missed as contentious budget debates begin.

I cite these departures not to criticize the two budget directors for leaving, but to reflect on the importance of attracting and retaining high-quality professionals to work in our most critical local government and school district positions. Alarmingly, that challenge is growing more difficult by the day.

With unemployment rates at their lowest levels in nearly a decade, talented individuals have many potential employment options from which to choose. And for many positions – such as financial managers, engineers, and attorneys – private sector compensation and perks often exceed what the public sector can offer given the financial challenges facing all levels of government.

Meanwhile, as the competition for talent intensifies, so has the need to fill vital positions in local government, in large part because of retiring baby boomers. According to a recent report by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, the average age of the local government workforce has increased from 42 to 45 in the past two decades, and the percentage of existing local government workers at retirement age has increased from 3% to 6%.

A particular challenge is how to make local government positions attractive to talented millennials. In a recent op ed in The Hill, Kevin Curry of Global Public Sector asserts that “millennials just aren’t looking at government as a sector of career interest anymore.” He blames, among other things, the “antiquated technology” used by many public sector agencies and their failure to modernize personnel policies and day-to-day operations, which makes them an unattractive option for young workers.      

Fortunately, money and technology are not the only things that matter to employees. In fact, many would argue that government has a primary advantage over the private sector in that it can provide its employees a unique opportunity to make a difference. Along those lines, perhaps local governments could better compete for talent by doing a better job selling their own virtues.

Elected leaders at the local level also must play a role. It’s no secret that our politics at all levels of government have grown more venomous and personal in recent years. That’s made things more difficult for professional staff, who often are caught in the crossfire when executive and legislative leaders go to war.

One need look no further than Milwaukee County government for evidence, where the salaries of top administrators recently became the subject of a vitriolic, highly-publicized dispute between the county executive and county board. In fact, a recent op ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel cited that episode as a contributing factor in Kreklow’s departure. Elected leaders certainly would be wise to consider the human resources consequences before involving professional staff in their ideological or personal battles.

Here at the Forum, we try to do our small part to enhance the profile of public sector employment with our annual Salute to Local Government event. We’ve also partnered with three local governments and several alumni of UWM’s public administration program to create a Pathways to Public Service fellowship initiative that provides paid local government internships to public administration students.

In the end, however, maintaining a high-quality public sector workforce will take a larger collective effort. Local government administrators must develop more imaginative human resource and workplace policies; elected officials need to ensure that their governments are places where talented, objective individuals would want to work; and we the people – the ultimate boss of public sector workers – need to recognize that it matters who fills critical local government posts and support policies and compensation practices that reflect such recognition.    

Rob Henken