Louie Al-Hashimi, Graduate Research Assistant, Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University
When it comes to a career in politics or government, people tend to idealize the grandeur of holding office at the national level or attaining coveted positions in the federal civil service. Because of this tendency, local governance often goes overlooked from a career development standpoint.
While the federal government certainly offers appealing professional opportunities, municipalities across the United States also provide valuable avenues for building a career in public service.
Whether one is interested in running for office or pursuing civil service, here are four reasons to consider a career in government at the local level.
Direct and Personal Impact
An inherent advantage of local governments is the ability to interact directly and frequently with the public. From economic development to community programming to environmental initiatives, local governance spans a broad range of services that elected officials and civil servants provide directly to constituents.
Serving the public at the local level allows for more frequent face-to-face communication to better address the needs of a given locality. Because communication channels with the public are more direct, local public servants have the privilege to personally experience the impact of their work on their communities. Whether that impact manifests in the form of a new business, a new community center, or another local endeavor, the public servants who dedicate their efforts often have the good fortune to see the fruits of their labor.
While democratic practices such as elections occur at all levels of government, certain practices are more commonly found at the local level.
For example, town hall meetings are frequently held within municipalities to promote the application of democratic principles such as public discourse and compromise. In comparison, nationally televised “town hall” programs concerning presidential elections typically feature polarizing sentiments that poorly reflect democratic principles. Although local governments are not immune to polarization, they tend to practice democracy in a more authentic manner. Hence, democratic practices such as debates, public meetings, and door-to-door advocacy are implemented more effectively at the local level.
Federal public service opportunities are primarily based in Washington D.C. as well as metropolitan areas nationwide, while state government positions are based in state capital cities. On the other hand, careers in local government span the entirety of the United States and thus offer public service professionals flexibility in terms of choosing where to live and work. Along with this flexibility come opportunities to experience different forms of governance across various localities.
In my own experience, I had the privilege to work for Fairfax County and Arlington County governments in Virginia, two neighboring jurisdictions that had both similarities and differences in terms of government structures, demographics, and public issues. Given the geographic and governmental variation found among municipalities across the country, a career in local government creates more options to choose from in terms of location and corresponding work.
With the aforementioned reasons in mind, there is a critical need for minority representation at the local level of government. Members of marginalized demographic groups can leverage a career in local government to amplify their collective impact and voice.
In my locality, I am proud to say that Arab-Americans have made strides to maintain an active presence in Fairfax County government. Most recently, Abrar Omeish was elected to the Fairfax County School Board and became the first Libyan-American to be elected to public office in America. Fairfax County has also designated the month of April to celebrate Arab-American heritage in order to recognize contributions and achievements from fellow Arab-Americans!
Put simply, local government has a profound effect on the livelihood of constituents across the country. Pursuing public service at the local level can empower minorities to build representation that leaves a lasting impact.