Data Collection Effort Aims to Shed More Light on Local Government’s ‘13 Percent’ Challenge

Buncombe County Courthouse (left) and the City Building (right) from Pack Square Park in Asheville, North Carolina.

Buncombe County Courthouse (left) and the City Building (right) from Pack Square Park in Asheville, North Carolina. Shutterstock

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“We’re hoping that a lot of people can come together and rally behind this.”

In 2015, the International City/County Management Association released gender data on its members in local government leadership roles. The results were disheartening.

According to the findings, at the time of the study, only 13 percent of all of the chief administrator roles in ICMA member counties were filled by women. And what’s more, that percentage hadn’t changed much for nearly 35 years.

While those figures might make many feel like giving up, for Engaging Local Government Leaders, that data was merely the starting point. While ICMA can provide a good baseline, their membership database misses 90 percent of the counties in the country. So, with the principle of “what gets measured, gets improved” in mind, ELGL set out to find out the full story of gender representation in local government and the “13 Percent” challenge.

To that end, ELGL partnered with four students in the Master of Public Administration program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Those students, Rosemary Stump, Toney Thompson, Libby Sequin and Sarah Ross Dickson, spent this past semester poring through information on leadership in North Carolina’s 100 counties.

The goal of their project was twofold. First, they were interested in finding out where the state stands on gender representation in local government leadership. And, potentially more importantly, they hoped to create a model that researchers in other states might use to find that data for themselves.

The team has wrapped up a portion of its research and is presenting its findings on Friday at the ELGL annual conference in Detroit.

Stump, Thompson and Sequin caught up with Route Fifty over the phone on Thursday, and even though they were speaking from an airport following early morning flights, the team’s excitement about their work was palpable.  

“All of us chose this project because the tenets of diversity and representation and fighting for gender and racial justice really matter to us,” Stump said.

But, even putting aside their own values, according to Stump the research on representation was hard to ignore.

“There’s a lot of literature on why representation leads to more effective implementation of policies,” Stump said.

“When you get down to it, of course it makes sense,” she added. “Representatives should be able to empathize with the lived experiences of their constituents in order to make policies that effectively address what’s going on in their lives.”

To find out just how well local government leadership in North Carolina reflects and represents constituents, each of the four team members took on 25 counties, finding the gender makeup of every chief administrative officer and assistant chief administrative officer in the state. While the students were responsible for conducting that research, they didn’t work entirely on their own. The project received significant resources and guidance from ELGL as well as from the UNC MPA program faculty members.

“We had long Skype chats [with ELGL leadership] about what the purpose of the project was and what we wanted to get out of the project,” Sequin said.

Along the way, the project bumped up against some challenges—the biggest of which the team said was time. As full-time students, balancing a course load with part-time jobs and extensive data collection was no easy task. But, the team does have some lessons learned to share with other researchers who might want to give this project a try for themselves.

Team management skills can’t be overstated in a project this large. A timeline and a plan for the group helped them stay on track. And support from UNC and ELGL were crucial, the team told Route Fifty. Any team that takes on the project for their own state should be prepared to gather help from universities and associations if they can.

“We’re hoping that a lot of people can come together and rally behind this, especially in the public sector,” Seguin said.

By the end of the semester, the team did come up with a number to sum up the state of gender representation in North Carolina. Twenty-one percent of all local government leadership positions in the Tar Heel State are held by women.

Which as Stump puts it, “is more than 13 percent, but is still not great by any means.” Along with attaining that number, the team also put together a spreadsheet template for other states to use, and a to-do list system to keep future local government representation researchers on track.

But, even more than the literal takeaways of the research, this project has shaped these four students in ways that go beyond data collection.

For Thompson, this project brought to life information he already knew. “One of the first things I realized when I entered the MPA program here at UNC was that 60 percent of the people who get MPA degrees are women,” he said. But learning the percentage of those women who go on to hold local leadership roles opened Thompson’s eyes to what he calls the “unintentional consequences” of decisions that prevent women from entering these positions of power.

“As future MPA graduates … we have to be more cautious about the decisions we’re making and be aware of the barriers we’re creating or tearing down,” Thompson said.

For Stump, this project has bolstered her belief in the values she brought with her to the UNC MPA program. In her words, this project helped teach her that “it’s impossible to divorce fighting for social justice from a career in public service.”

But, it’s also taught the team what it means to pursue research in the service of those values. “After this year and this project, it’s really illuminated how much intentionality and work and data collection and analysis has to go into making substantial changes,” Stump said.

“This project has shown all of us the amount of work it takes, but it also showed us how possible it is and how many people are excited and enthusiastic about doing this work.”  

Quinn Libson writes for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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