What Civic Fellows Bring to the Governing Table

This article was originally published in apolitical and is used with permission. Original article can be found here.

January 3, 2020 | By Hollie Russon Gilman

Many governments are experimenting with new ways of finding meaningful, sustainable avenues for channelling resident feedback and building civic engagement into decision-making. In other words, residents and government are finding new ways of working together for the benefit of all.

From working with public sector leaders across the globe — and in the Obama White House — it is clear to me that there is a need for building public sector capacity.

One recommendation is the creation of “civic fellowships” to enable fellows to not only flourish within government, but also equip people to work across sectors throughout their careers. By bringing residents together with real power, these programs can help maximize public good and public value.

It’s my conviction that these civic fellowships should work across multiple sectors, rather than only across government. The goal should be to create lifelong civic leaders, not fund limited-scope projects through short, time-bound appointments. Indeed, the importance of early career rotations as a way of developing key staff is increasingly recognized by governmental bodies.

Programs could equip public sector leaders with skills from across multiple industries, including technology, organizing, academia and philanthropy. Ideally, fellowships include multiple entry points to attract diverse talent experts at different levels in their career and offer them many different types of roles.

By allowing for rotations across many different types of jobs, we can engage new leaders across their careers. For example, we can enable people to serve a stint at a civic tech startup, as a community organizer, and then return for a career in local government — all the while with a strong group of mentors, on-ramps to public service and opportunities for learning new skills.

If done right, these programs could provide a more effective form of talent and expertise that helps the public sector govern better. In addition, civic fellowships would recruit people from a more diverse background to join public service across multiple levels, including local, state or regional.

As a result, a wider variety of expertise, skillsets and perspectives that often are excluded from governing are included in the policymaking process.

Rethinking how we work in government

Engaging more people in the process of governing requires a radically different view of what governmental expertise and personnel look like.

Governing with the community front and centre requires its own form of expertise: engaging with communities requires a wide range of linguistic, interpersonal and locally rooted skills. However, government has traditionally included people with privileged socioeconomic, educational, racial and legal status.

“Engaging more people in the process of governing requires a radically different view of what governmental expertise and personnel look like”

Any government department that commits to deepening democratic participation and sharing civic power will have to train and invest in existing staff, creating incentives and supports for learning new approaches. But they must also develop new creative ways to bring in a more locally rooted and diverse workforce, particularly through civic fellowships that have concerted outreach to marginalized communities, especially women and people of color.

In order for public servants to make policy that more aptly reflects community needs, the public sector needs to hire from the very communities it is serving.

It requires modifying the talent pipeline to be more diverse and more inclusive, so that more individuals from non-traditional backgrounds enter public service. And, crucially, rethinking the traditional recruitment that’s built on unpaid internships and often ignores students from community colleges.

It will also require building interdisciplinary thinkers who have practical expertise across many parts of society.

There is already a proven track record for a fellowship model that focuses a fellow’s time within one specific sector. One example includes the long-standing Presidential Management Fellows program, which tackles some of the same challenges to attracting early-career recruits to public service and offers the option for rotations across the federal government, as well as the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which brings external talent into the federal government.

Civic fellows would be offered opportunities that span across different sectors and multiple parts of the workforce, while maintaining a core commitment to giving back to the community and locally grounded public service. This enables insights from grassroots organizing, academia and civic technology, to name but a few areas, to be translated into public policy.

Effective civic engagement enables people from different sectors outside government to equip both fellows and public servants to learn from each other. It’s no surprise that the importance of early career rotations to developing key staff is increasingly recognized by governmental bodies.

The U.S. Department of State’s second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which analyzes the impact of U.S. foreign development, included a recommendation for how the department could better invest in an “agile, skilled workforce”.

The review focuses on promoting workforce mobility, enabling employees to move between department bureaus, rotating between the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development, being detailed to other federal agencies or even taking sabbaticals from federal service into academia or the private sector.

As Tom Perriello, now executive director for U.S. Programs at Open Society Foundations, has said: “We’re managing people’s entire careers, not just managing them to the next tour.”

Fostering the next generation of leaders

Civic fellowships would also focus on developing lifelong civic leaders from residents who may not have originally considered public service.

To make these programs possible, new public service fellowships could be institutionalized and financed so that colleges, professional schools and vocational training facilities could frequently partner with philanthropists, organizers and bureaucrats to offer “residencies” that cultivate talent by exposing future organizers to government work and future bureaucrats to organizing and advocacy work.

For example, Harvard Business School’s Leadership Fellows program helps place recent graduates in meaningful public sector and social sector offices in local government. Harvard subsidizes part of the salary and provides mentorship opportunities.

Chris Osgood, who went on to co-found Boston’s New Urban Mechanics, began his work at city hall as a Harvard Leadership Fellow. The fellowship’s goals are to invest in leaders and to demonstrate the value of multi-sector or “tri-sector” expertise.

Unlike other business school fellowships that put a premium on business expertise and translating findings into profits, the goal of these civic fellowships is to create leaders who will remain place-based and tied to their communities. This requires gaining expertise outside of one’s existing academic and professional communities.

“The power of civic engagement is its ability to amplify perspectives and expertise not traditionally heard in government”

The power of civic engagement is its ability to amplify perspectives and expertise not traditionally heard in government. But fully realizing this power also means changing our democratic institutions.

Ultimately, civic fellows would provide greater equity inside the public sector and help to foster the next generation of public sector literacy with cross-sectoral skills.

Hollie Russon Gilman is a Beeck Center Fellow, fellow at New America’s Political Reform Program, and lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is the co-author, with K Sabeel Rahman, of the new book Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis. Follow her on Twitter.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash