The GovLove Generation: How Millennials Are Redefining Public Service

They're beginning to reshape local government in a big way.
July 2019
Kirsten Wyatt
Kirsten Wyatt co-founded the Engaging Local Government Leaders organization. (Courtesy of Kirsten Wyatt)
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

When I was coming of age in the 1960s, we were told not to trust anyone over 30. Today’s generational split is as big as that one was, but the threshold age is somewhat higher. Today the biggest divide is between millennials, the oldest of whom are now just under 40, and baby boomers, the youngest of whom are about 55. It’s a divide that’s beginning to play out in government, and, for now, the biggest impact is at the local level.

Those two generations tend to have starkly different opinions on a range of hot topics in local government. On housing, for example, younger people are more likely to favor increasing density and rebalancing policies that promote homeownership over renting. On transportation, millennials are more supportive of transit alternatives to car ownership. And when it comes to police-community relations, they tend to be far more concerned about abusive police behavior and more supportive of increased civilian oversight of police.

These divisions make governing at the community level difficult, but there’s a growing force that, while still largely under the radar, is beginning to make a powerful difference. It’s a cadre of younger local government professionals who have joined together under an organization called Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) -- true believers whose enthusiasm mirrors that of their avowed heroine, Leslie Knope from the TV sitcom Parks and Recreation. Like her, they love local government; in fact, ELGL’s signature podcast is called GovLove.

The group was founded in 2010 by the husband-and-wife team of Kent and Kirsten Wyatt. The couple had met in the public administration master’s degree program at the University of North Carolina and were working as mid-level managers in small cities in Oregon, and they wanted to meet some other young government professionals. It began with a lunch attended by 16 people. “People just really liked the chance to get away from work and get to know one another,” Kirsten Wyatt, who became ELGL’s full-time executive director about three years ago, told me. “And so we made a commitment to keep organizing those lunches. And then pretty soon we started adding guest speakers to talk about trending topics in the region.” ELGL had its first conference in 2013, and today it has a membership of more than 4,000 local government professionals from across the country.

ELGL’s culture is distinctly different from what is typical of many professional associations. Its members have, according to Wyatt, “a bias for action” and a drive for sharing and collaboration -- “not just staying in your lane and climbing some career ladder.” The organization doesn’t avoid taking positions on issues of governance and public administration that its members feel passionate about. It has, for example, “definitely taken some very pronounced stances on things like diversity, equity and inclusion, and getting more women and people of color into local government leadership,” Wyatt says. It has also been outspoken on family leave and other workplace policies that could go a long way toward keeping talented people in government in the face of increasing competition from the private sector.

As I listen to people talk about that problem and so many others that confront local governments, as well as the negative image that government in general must contend with, I frequently find myself telling them about ELGL and how, as Wyatt puts it, so much of what it does is about “finding the joy in local service.” It’s a sentiment I’m sure Leslie Knope could get behind.