One of the elements of government that academic theory really could not prepare me for was stakeholder management and engagement. This summer I’ve been an observer of the steering committee of Wake County’s Comprehensive Affordable Housing Plan, which is supposed to guide the county in its efforts to generate more affordable housing over the next 15-20 years. The steering committee is actually a mosaic of five subcommittees, each focusing on a different aspect of affordable housing (homeownership, rental, supportive housing, etc.), and all guided by the work of a consulting group. My supervisor, the director of Wake Housing, sits in on every single committee and subcommittee meeting, and it’s been truly educational to debrief with her after each meeting. She’s in a weird limbo position of heading the agency that will eventually lead the efforts as determined by this committee, but in the meantime is observing as the consulting group guides stakeholders through discussions. She’s an expert on affordable housing, but she has to play mediary between non-profit and for-profit developers, municipalities of the county, and the Wake manager’s office, all of whom are represented in these subcommittees, while also deferring to the consultants to run the committee. For a profession that is supposedly, ideally apolitical or neutral, being a civil servant requires a massive amount of political maneuvering and negotiation.
The five subcommittees convened in an all day work day recently, which was a treat to watch for me, as it involved not only the careful management by both consultants and my Wake superiors, but also was a first hand experience of the engagement I have learned much about from a Planning perspective. (Quick recap: I am a dual degree student in Public Administration and City and Regional Planning. Much of what I’ve learned so far in Planning is about the mediation process between government and community). The consultants had to lead the congregation of subcommittees who all had separate agendas, in addition to guiding actors in different sectors who had individual, conflicting perspectives as well. There were no British-parliamentary style shouting matches, but just observing the grind of a whole day of discussion about the most effective and actionable tools made me appreciate more the governing process as a whole. It’s been a constant and gradually unfolding theme throughout this summer, that not only is the individual job of a civil servant more than I imagined after the first year of school, but the work of the government as a whole is awesome in the Old Testament sense of the word. Thinking about all the moving parts, the incredibly slow processes involved in cooperation with community actors, other levels of government, even other departments within the same government – it just impresses upon me the behemoth that our republic truly is.
For many Americans, from both conservative and liberal strains, that immensity is seen as an absolute negative. The inexorable quality of government is at the core of why it is inefficient at best, corrupt and self-serving at its worst. To me, though, whether it’s because of my privilege, and how government serves me first before people of other identities, or because I’m a giant nerd, and the act of governance fascinates me, the behemoth fascinates me. Truly, I am exasperated by its glacial action sometimes. Being in the room, though, watching the delicate, savvy work of my supervisor and her consultants to weave a coalition together – not only securing consent, but a willingness to work collectively towards solutions for a problem that all acknowledge – is fascinating. It gives me the nerd-goosebumps. It also makes me hopeful, that if conversations are still happening, especially around a topic that is widely politicized, that our civic culture, our civil society is still functioning. These days that’s harder and harder to see. Keep talking, friends.