Harvard Experience Confirms Value of Public Service

By Charlie McClendon
City Manager, Avondale

I was fortunate to be able to participate in the Senior Executives program this summer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. First let me say thank you to ACMA and the selection committee members who awarded me a scholarship to attend. The program was fantastic and I will always be grateful to ACMA for the opportunity to be a part of it.

The class consisted of 80 students, all involved in state or local government, from around the United States (29 states and Puerto Rico) and the countries of Ireland, Mexico, China and New Zealand. Among my classmates were other City and County Managers, Fire Chiefs, heads of state agencies, housing authority executives, law enforcement officials and twelve elected officials. I hadn't expected elected officials to be part of the class before I arrived, but I found that they added a dimension to the discussion that was important and beneficial.

The professors were excellent and challenged us to be thoughtful about what we said in class. "Where's your data", was a typical response to a statement made in class that appeared to be unsupported by facts. Daily readings of what seemed to be hundreds of pages were also part of the class requirements. It seemed like a return to graduate school, but somehow I got through most of it.

To me, the time spent outside of class in discussions with others was just as important as the class time. The depth and breadth of experience represented by my classmates was astonishing. Someone in the class had career experiences relevant to almost any topic being discussed and they were always willing to share their experience. I now have experts I can call on for help with almost anything.

I doubt that I can come up with anything too profound to summarize the lessons I learned at Harvard, but there were some. First, what we do in local government is complicated. It's difficult because we have to consider and involve so many people, so many different perspectives and so many interests in our decisions. The public hearings, media attention, complaining citizens, disgruntled employees and competing interests make it hard to get things done. But the framers of the constitution designed our system of government that way on purpose. They were fearful of a government that had too much power, which could move too fast, because an oppressive government that trampled individual rights was what they had fled in Europe. I try to remember that when I get frustrated over how long it is taking to go through the public process. Our jobs are complicated for a reason.

Another lesson from my experience is that what we do in local government is important. When local government works, it makes people's lives better. We give voice to the powerless, protect the law abiding from the lawless, promote a clean and healthy environment, ensure that neighborhoods are livable and build public spaces that can be our legacy for generations to come. Providing excellent service and protecting the rights of individuals as the founders of our country intended improve the lives of the people. This is why I work in public service, and my time at Harvard helped remind me of that. I am grateful for the experience.

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