The Story Behind Working in Local Government

By Maia Jachimowicz

A young Philadelphian holds his new summer reading book bundle. Copyright City of Philadelphia. Photography by Kait Privitera.

It was a sweltering hot day in Philadelphia and I was driving an old Ford Taurus up North Broad Street with a carload of colleagues and a trunk full of books. We were on our way to deliver summer books to children at a U.S.D.A.-funded summer meals site as part of the mayor’s Fun Safe Philly Summer reading drive.

We had a plan for our arrival: we would assemble a makeshift card table, prepare reading assessments for the children, and organize book bundles for distribution. But before we could even unload the books from the car, we were bombarded by children (and parents) incredibly eager to take part in our reading program. Several children were so excited they ripped open their book bundles and sat down on the curb to start reading right away.

This is one of countless memories I have of my time working in city government and one example of why I dedicated nearly eight years to public service in Philadelphia. I wanted to introduce effective public policies to improve outcomes for residents. In the case of our summer reading program, research shows that one effective way to stem summer learning loss is to continue to expose children to level-appropriate reading materials in the summertime paired with a caring adult who can help guide them through these materials. By using research and evidence to inform our program design, we improved the likelihood that our summer reading program had the strongest possible impact.

I am still working to introduce effective public policies in my role with Results for America. I am fortunate to work with 15 passionate and forward-thinking local government leaders from across America in an effort to lead their governments toward advanced stages of data-driven, evidence-based policymaking. In addition to providing a curriculum with some of the cutting-edge data-driven strategies in use today, RFA ensures that local government leaders possess the necessary soft skills to effectively communicate the importance of using data and evidence to inform policy decisions.

Here below are the stories of Results for America’s Local Government Fellows, what inspires them to do their work and what keeps them motivated.

“As an MBA grad and small business owner, I never pictured myself working as a government bureaucrat. However, now as a City Administrator, I have found ways to innovate within the public sector to make local government more nimble and responsive to the people we serve.

Through the creative use of data and technology we are able to do anything from helping a small business obtain a license, to cleaning up graffiti within a matter of hours. Our wins as a city are all rooted in data and technology; this will always be one of the things I am proudest of during my time as a public servant.”

“To be honest, I never felt called to public service. My background was entirely in the private sector and I never thought I would end up in government. And even when I was approached and decided to give it a shot, I assumed I wouldn’t like working in government because of all the bureaucracy. Atlanta city government proved me wrong.

What I find so exciting about my work…what gets me out of bed every day is that — specifically at the local level — you have the ability to have a tangible impact on the city around you. This fact far surpasses anything else I could want in a job.”

“During my graduate school internship at the Michigan Department of Social Services, I evaluated a job training program. I found that the main predictor of trainees getting and keeping a job was owning a car. So, after graduating, I wrote a white paper about how DOT could play a role in helping people move from welfare to work.

Four years later, I was working at the White House Office of Management and Budget when Linda Lawson, a senior official at DOT called. ‘Andrew, the transportation reauthorization bill includes funding for a new program called Job Access and Reverse Commute,’ she said. “The program will help inner-city welfare clients reach jobs in the suburbs. It all started with your white paper.” Twenty years later, that call remains one of the best I’ve ever received, and still motivates me to use data and evidence to make government work better for the people who need it most.”

“My mother is a social worker — one of the ‘helping professions.’ So I grew up attuned to helping people, while always being intrigued by business. Unfortunately, I didn’t know of ways to merge business and community service, and saw these as mutually exclusive.

In my current position, I use my business training to inform people about policies, mediate situations of competing interests, and connect the County with resources. Now I get to play a role in helping not only the community, but also the region move forward. That’s why I enjoy what I do.”

“I can’t remember a time when I was not driven to serve a purpose larger than myself. Problem was, I didn’t know how. As one of the youngest children in a large family, I came from humble beginnings. Still, I was taught that anything is possible if you work hard enough. Scared, but excited, I would be the first my family to attend college at a four-year university. Trying to navigate toward a career, I tried a lot of academic and other ventures but I couldn’t seem to find my way.

While I was seriously considering yet another path, this time in landscape architecture of all things, a voice said to me ‘you are kidding yourself, you were meant to directly serve others.’ Now, over thirty years later and a career that spans six different Texas cities, I still have that ‘fire in the belly’ for this noble and rewarding profession that we call public service.”

“What drives me in my work is creating connection and belonging between people and their government. Belonging is something that everyone needs, and, like each of us, I carry the sting of childhood experiences that made me feel like an outsider. But it was later in life — living as a foreigner in the Japanese countryside, working as a young woman in a male-dominated field — that I gained insight into what it is like to experience a sustained labeling as ‘other.’

I draw on this in my work every day to build connection with people whose backgrounds differ from my own. Creating a sense of belonging requires a concerted and sustained effort to build trust. People need to feel heard and understood, and see that their government can and will work to improve their lives. That’s why a focus on results is so critical — it’s about people believing their government belongs to them again.”

“A few years ago, an intern asked why I worked in government. It brought up some old memories: moving to the US when I was four and having to go to ESL classes because I didn’t speak English; being treated by doctors when I was sick (though I hate shots!); learning from my teachers and professors in public school and university.

I was lucky to have the support of family AND those working to make their community a better place. I replied that’s why I do what I do — so that others can have the same chance I did. That’s why I support #whatworks.”

“I constantly get to push the status quo. Not just about the work we do in city government and how we do it, but I get to push individuals to expect more of themselves, their peers, their leaders and their community. I get to walk with people on their journey of discovery and be there when the light bulbs go off.

For example, a longtime Public Works Director had come to accept that 30% of his workforce would get injured on the job because of the nature of their work. I encouraged him to look at the data of other Public Works organizations; he was astonished to learn that others had achieved zero workplace injuries over a year. Empowered with this information, he set out to improve the safety for his team and today their injuries are less than 10% and continue to improve.”

“Over the past decade we have witnessed the demise of local government management by gut feeling or intuition. Scarce public resources plus educated and engaged residents means that we all must embody the famous quote ‘In God we trust, all others bring data.’

Those of us in public sector performance management and data analytics are on the front lines of this effort, advocating for more thoughtful and data- and evidence-driven service provision. The crossroads of metrics and management is a place with the potential to change peoples’ lives; it’s an exciting place to be and I’m grateful to be engaged in this kind of work.”

“When we started this work back in 2010, New Orleans city government had been brought to its knees by Hurricane Katrina, a severe budget crisis, and broken IT systems. You see a lot of the people who work in City Hall who have weathered the worst of the worst and give all they have to make this city a better place.

They were working to keep services going with little more than spit, bubblegum and scotch tape. Everyone who was here was working hard to do their best but they were severely constrained by resources, and working with very little information and support.

I see my role as helping city government work smarter and more strategically with the resources we have. Data allows us to do our work better by focusing on those things that work. Because by golly everyone is working hard, so we should be making all that effort count.”

“I grew up in Boston and went to public schools during the height of court-ordered busing to address unconstitutional segregation, and am grateful to have benefited from integrated schools, along with many other students who otherwise would likely have grown up with a narrower worldview and a worse education.

The decisions of public officials shape the context of our lives — and we know that policies and programs exist which can effectively reduce poverty, improve economic mobility, and help people achieve their full potential. One of government’s central obligations is to protect the American value of genuine equality of opportunity, and for me, #WhatWorks is about doing everything we can to move us closer to realizing this ideal.”

“What matters most to me, in my life, is that I want each person who interacts with me to be left feeling understood, and inspired to make a difference for someone else. As a person representing Philadelphia, I also often think about what I want to see for our City, and the people who live, work and visit Philadelphia. I hate seeing people struggle.

Each of us working and representing our City have an opportunity to make a real difference for someone else — when they interact with us for services, have a question, or a concern they need to address. I support #WhatWorks because I am invested in seeing others succeed, and to improving the quality of the experience each person has in their interactions with Philadelphia. I want people to feel understood by their local government.”

“Government has to provide the structure, services and support for not just one customer with one problem, but an infinitely diverse customer base with a constantly multiplying array of challenges. And it has a PR problem. And a resource problem, in terms of staffing and budget. On top of all that, we in government have politics to contend with. It’s a wonder we can do anything at all.

But look at how much we do! I want to prove that. I want to show our constituency that we’re putting their money where our mouth is, and that we’re investing in what we know — empirically — improves lives. My commitment is to drive resources toward what works, from a place of knowledge (data and evidence) and with a mindset of new ways of taking action (innovation).”

“It is exciting to be working for a Mayor who has put good governance as a priority. I come from the private sector and was used to accountability measures being part of every strategic plan and program design, so it is very rewarding to work with great City teams to match that private sector mindset with public sector values and realities.

Last year we focused on transparency, giving Seattle citizens information on our performance implementing tax initiatives they passed for transportation and parks. Our research shows that performance management efforts have come and gone at the City, but our whole Cabinet team is committed to making this new mindset our way of doing business.”

“I’ve always wanted a career in public service. I am so excited that now, each day, I get to collaborate with amazing people across government to try and continuously improve our services.

For example, we recently dug into DC’s 311 system to learn about its performance with our new Office of Unified Communications Director. We noticed that calls were taking more than 5 minutes on average to answer, way too long. She came up with a new staffing proposal and nine months later she sent us a note showing that it now takes 29 seconds on average to answer!

When we use data and evidence to drive decisions, we get to see real results in action. And there is nothing better than knowing you helped make a difference.”

Maia Jachimowicz is the Vice President for Evidence-Based Policy Implementation for Results for America. Maia previously served as Director of Policy in the Office of the Mayor for the City of Philadelphia and was in the inaugural class of the Results for America’s Local Government Fellows program.