by Katharine Labrecque, municipal management fellow at the city of Dover, NH & MPA candidate at the University of New Hampshire
As I begin to wrap up my fellowship in the city of Dover, NH, I have spent time reflecting on the last few months of my experience. The fellowship is organized by the Municipal Management Association of New Hampshire and allows graduate students and/or recent graduates the opportunity to participate in and learn about municipal management and operations. My fellowship awarded me the time to learn about police, fire, public works, recreational operations and general administration. I also enjoyed the opportunity to drive around in a police cruiser and a quint fire apparatus, tour a waste water treatment facility, and attend a variety of internal and stakeholder meetings.
Participating in the fellowship afforded me the chance to absorb what I determined to be admirable management abilities and proficiencies. I was also able to put into context and better apprehended the myriad of obstacles and challenges that both management and line staff encounter in their roles. Among other things, I learned to host effective staff meetings, develop a capital improvement plan, and appreciate the significance of strategic planning. Moreover, the most important management takeaways and skills I will leave my fellowship with include: the importance of transparency, significance of a strong culture, and the value innovation brings to an organization.
With modern advancements in technology that allow information to be readily available, it’s vital that government is transparent and prompt to publish material to the public. The City of Dover strives to update their website daily by posting announcements, updating its repository of documents and financial information, and distributing City reports, budget details, and meeting records. City Manager, Mike Joyal underscores the city’s commitment saying, “We will continue to promote openness and public participation in local government, recognizing that transparency is the foundation of public trust." During my fellowship I had the opportunity to attend community events and council meetings, and rarely heard residents scrutinize or disagree with the decisions the City and its elected officials made. Ensuring that the public understands administrative decisions and has access to information promotes trust. Transparency is just one of the many ways to secure public support or buy-in and is the building block for sustainable and strategic development.
Creating an organization culture in the public sector is said to be difficult, if not an impossible endeavor. Limited resources, including time, money, and personnel are the typical barriers to creating a robust organization culture. However, as I learned over the last five months working in the City of Dover, I know it’s feasible. We can easily distinguish what matters to an organization by how they treat each other, the public, and their stakeholders. Developing an ideal culture starts at the top. As a manager I want to create a climate where leadership supports growth, collaboration, and innovation. I believe these values are essential to engendering an effective and productive work environment, integrating innovation, and encouraging creative problem-solving. During my fellowship I met employees across the organizational spectrum, and many expressed that they felt valued and supported by the leadership team. I found staff were always winning to help and frequently went above and beyond what was required of them. To help foster this strong culture, management encourages staff to pursue opportunities such as career development trainings, conferences, and continuing education programs. Collectively there is consensus among staff that their work underscores the City’s mission and they are making a difference in their community.
Innovation is often neglected in the public sector, and justifiably so. With taxes being governments primary source of revenue it’s difficult to justify investing in novel and contemporary technology, software, and infrastructure. However, with intentional planning and creative financing, I’ve learned it’s conceivable. Over the course of my fellowship, I had the opportunity to see the fruits of innovation fostered by a strong culture of ingenuity. If government wants to compete with the private sector for talented and skilled employees and earn public support, we need to balance and heighten innovation. The Council and City Manager affords staff the flexibility to find innovative ways to provide world-class services to the public while ensuring maximize efficiency and efficacy. Dover has sought ways to deliver services that have never been done before in the region. Examples include: developing a state-of-the art wastewater treatment plant, investing in solar panels on public buildings, and adopting creative land use regulations to encourage affordable housing developments.
Moreover, my fellowship exposed me to municipal operations and knowledge outside of the classroom. It has underscored my passion for making a difference in communities and my desire to pursue a career in local government. As many of us know, serving the public is not easy task but it’s certainly rewarding. The opportunity to be immersed in an environment where learning never ceases, is attractive to me. My fellowship experience has underscored that I have chosen the right career path.