Innovation Profile: Julie Underwood of Emerging Local Government Leaders

Julie Underwood, Assistant City Manager of Daly City

Julie Underwood, Assistant City Manager of Daly City

We’re always always on the lookout for organizations who share our passion for modern local government. The first time we came across Emerging Local Government Leaders, we knew it was a match made in #LocalGov heaven.

To find out more, we spoke with Julie Underwood, Assistant City Manager of Daly City, about her involvement with ELGL and its work engaging the next generation of public servants.

How did you first get involved with Local Government?

I started out in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC as an intern in the City Manager’s office; then I was promoted to Assistant to the City Manager. From there, I was appointed Assistant City Manager in Shoreline, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. I achieved a personal career goal when I was unanimously appointed City Manager for Shoreline in 2011. I served in that role for just under three years before moving to the Bay Area in 2013.

The first time I was introduced to ELGL was when they asked me to participate in their “nifty-fifty” profile just after I was appointed City Manager. I had a chance to become much more involved with ELGL after I moved to the Bay Area.

What is the mission of ELGL?

It’s not uncommon to see professional administrators take themselves very seriously. Of course, ELGL is serious about work, but it can still be fun, which is why you see us use a lot of Parks and Rec references, gifs, and memes. We want to capture the new generation coming into local government, and we recognize future leaders expect a different kind of workplace, and community.   

ELGL was founded by a husband/wife team — Kirsten & Kent Wyatt out of Portland — who met in the Masters of Public Administration program at UNC. They recognized it wasn’t easy for the the younger generation to connect and get their foot in the door in local government. Kirsten and Kent are not ones to say,”Well, here’s the problem as I see it, you should go do something about it.” They’re more like, “Here’s the problem, here’s what I think will fix it, want to help me fix it?” Two themes across our organization are: collaboration and action.

We have six chapters across the country that are entirely volunteer driven. We believe membership, trainings, social events, and conferences should be accessible and affordable. We love social media, which is another tool we use to make ourselves accessible.

How do you connect with members?

We’ve seen that the Millennial generation is very comfortable connecting online and remotely, so ELGL has focused on building an online community. Lots of Millennials are on social media, which resonates much more with them than just traditional conferences or networking.

We have an organic, collective problem-solving approach. We want to discuss what’s messed up in local government. We combine that with positive energy around what we can do about it. Anyone can complain, we want to take action and make a difference.

Do you do in-person events as well or only online?

We do it all! In fact, our annual conference is going on right now (October 22 & 23) in Portland.

We really want events to be accessible to everyone, which is why we do a lot of our engagement online. For in-person events, we don’t think you should have to pay $100s for a week-long conference.

Next year, around this time, we’ll be doing our first-ever pop-up conference in the Bay Area (the other five chapters will be doing their pop-up conferences in their areas on the exact same day). Stay tuned for more!

What resources do you provide to your members?

Beyond the community, we are helping the next generation build a full toolkit of skills. We provide networking and webinars; however, we don’t want to duplicate what is already provided by other organizations. For example, the Municipal Management Association of Northern California (MMANC) does lots of skill-building workshops, which is awesome. So we don’t need to focus there; we’ll focus on building and strengthening our digital community.

We are a group that embraces technology like you can’t imagine. Of course, every technology tool is not the answer, but we have to be constantly learning and evaluating new tools. The timeframe for innovation isn’t 5-10 years, it’s 12 months or even shorter. A real skill is an ability to adapt, and to adapt quickly, in a shorter, more compressed timeframe.

We also care about changing the way government functions and engages with its workforce. Millennials aren’t necessarily okay with the traditional 8-5 workday. Obviously, some positions need to be available during traditional business hours, but in other positions, we need to be open with a workforce that wants to access work anywhere anytime.

Lastly, we have a number of partnerships with private sector agencies. We don’t subscribe to a traditional sponsorship model. Companies, organizations, cities and counties that have a like-minded approach become organizational members. This allows them to get involved like everyone else. They become technical advisors for our members—over 1,000 across more than 30 states—by doing webinars and guest blogging for us. And sometimes they donate “swag” – we like “swag”!

How are you different from other organizations focused on government?

We’re a pretty edgy organization. We confront issues that range from sensitive, like what happened in Ferguson last year, to self-reflective, such as gender and racial/ethnic representation in local government  I believe we are more than willing to push the boundaries by raising diversity, gender, or LGBT issues.

For example, in my profession there are very few female CEOs-only 13%, or one in ten. To bring this issue into the frontview, we launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #13Percent. We received an overwhelming response.

We’ll be the first to say that local governments’ non-transparent ways won’t work today. To make positive change in local government you have to be willing to call a spade a spade. Engaging our members, our organizations, our communities in these difficult conversations is where change starts.

Over 15 years ago when I started as an intern in local government, I thought I would change the world! My membership with ELGL has re-inspired me to have the audacity to believe that I truly can.