How Millennials Are About to Change the Face of Public Service

As they move into leadership positions, we're going to hear less about "rowing" and "steering" and more about engaging the public.
August 3, 2015
By Sam Taylor  |  Contributor
Sam Taylor is the deputy city manager for Morro Bay, Calif.

I was talking recently to Jack Madans, a founding team member of the "civic hacking" group Code for America, about community engagement, and we lamented the state of public participation in government.

It shouldn't be just about giving the public a chance to be heard, we agreed. It should be about taking the feedback from the public and then actually utilizing it to fashion policies that have an impact on their lives. That often isn't what happens when some municipalities get public feedback, Jack felt, adding that a lot of today's public engagement is like the Make-A-Wish Foundation without the wish actually being granted.

So how can we improve the way governments get and utilize public input? I believe a lot of this will change with time - that is, as more millennials come into positions of executive leadership in cities, we're going to see more focus on "the new public service," a term coined by Janet V. Denhardt and Robert B. Denhardt in their book The New Public Service: Serving, Not Steering.

The millennial generation that I'm part of has a strong dedication to public service. It's a generation that wants to make a difference in its communities and ensure that citizens control their own destiny. Public engagement is a cornerstone to making that happen.

Historic forms of government administration focused on either the "old public management" aims of simply "rowing" to achieve the ends of elected policy-makers or the "new public management" goal of "steering" agencies, with wide latitude toward market-focused management solutions. As the Denhardts might say, however, the public has been placed in the back of the boat. With the new-public-service approach, energized public administrators are intent on putting the community directly in the captain's chair.

It seems like a simple concept. But older forms of public administration did not readily embrace citizen input as a means of developing policy.

We're changing that now. Millennial executive leaders are already pushing on these fronts, seeking innovative public-engagement solutions using technology, such as the opportunities provided by Code for America. It's then about working to follow up with constituencies to ensure that they know how their input has been utilized.

That follow-up is critical to counteract the perception in some communities that public servants aren't listening to the input that citizens do provide -- one reason that it can be hard to engender the level of public participation that makes for a healthy, productive civil dialogue.

So let's begin to tell a different story. Start by building strategic public-engagement strategies for policy initiatives that work to both recruit participants and engage them. That means ensuring that residents are aware of how valuable their input is and understand clearly how it will be used. Personalize the communications to residents.

And go to where the community is. People are busy. They are tired. They are on fixed incomes. Attending meetings can be difficult. Bring the meetings to them, perhaps by creating a mobile or "pop-up" City Hall, with staff members from different departments meeting and talking to residents while providing them with information about what their community's government is doing and actively seeking their input. Put up booths at the local grocery store with information on the next major planning effort.

Millennials are thinking about these kinds of opportunities constantly, embracing a form of public administration that places the community directly in that captain's chair. It's about serving, not steering.