Guest blog by Kevin Schilling
COVID spread within three months of my first term on Burien City Council. When I ran for the office a few months prior to that, my expectations for policies to implement focused primarily on improving coordination between our city’s robust social service providers and the city’s administrative capabilities. However, these priorities quickly changed with the financial and logistical impacts of COVID on our city operations, business operations, and educational offerings. I knew I needed to turn to an opportunity to expand my implementation skills to harness the power of municipal government to fill the gaps of service provided by non-profits and churches. Municipal governance no longer only required a perpetuation and continuation of budget changes and code adjustments, we now needed to recognize and adapt our priorities to an ever-changing global environment reacting to a public health crisis intersecting a racial justice crisis as well as economic recessions. Through the Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education program in implementing public policy, I expected the opportunity to learn and grow my skills in understanding how to do just that.
While taking the course, I served as a COVID-19 HungerCorps Response Team member. I delivered food to low income families every day, while learning more and more every week about the impacts on my city’s population. I used this experience to focus on food policy in cities and to understand the role cities can play in supporting this non-profit and non-governmental organizations in their efforts. Primarily, the IPP Exec Ed course prepared me to take academic literature and implementation theory into perpetual practice: ideation, grouping, planning, implementing, iterating, implementing, rethinking, and adjusting. The main area where there is not a widespread understanding that IPP did a tremendous job in ushering? The awareness that it’s ok to not have all the answers right away, that it’s ok to try something new, to learn new things, to change your methods. Right now, in the political realm, this is not a widely accepted concept.
In order to accomplish tasks that require courage and drive, one must assemble a team and provide a vision that connects with an action-oriented agenda. To convince NGO’s and nonprofits, I had to first prove this was a viable program to follow. So, I ran a food drive myself and showed that it’s possible to do it with one person, but could accomplish much more working together. Two weeks ago, after a few weeks of planning and communication, we launched another team-based food drive and received 1,600 pounds of food and $3,000 in donations to help the homeless shelter/food bank non-profit in Burien. This was a major success and largest donation they’ve received.
Prior to the course, as a younger city councilmember, I took time to feel comfortable offering additional ways of observing, thinking about, and articulating a path to problem solving to staffers that are much more my senior and much more experienced. Ultimately, this course gave me the courage and the confidence to enter any conversation with the tools necessary to make substantial contributions to the problems being addressed. First and foremost, it gave me the ability to make the issue and issue. I think this is a plainly important element to problem solving in the policy world that is not often articulated enough, but that IPP makes you aware of to an incredibly pointed degree: your issue can’t be tackled if you haven’t brought it up as an issue. For example, my issue, food security, was an issue that has basically been relegated to non-profits and NGOs in the area. But my insistence on the city doing more, and working to help in peripheral areas to ensure people have access to resource (mostly focused around broadband access and physical access to food sources) created a motivation from other members of council and the community to support pushing for more municipal concern for food accessibility.
Smaller budgets, businesses closing, and lockdowns were the new normal for municipal action. Operations reflected a continuation of normal functions of government in an abnormal reality. My motivation was simple: within this abnormal world in a normal functioning government atmosphere, we have kept ourselves distracted away from those who needed help the most. Low income families, seniors, and the homeless all required the basic necessities of goods much more than middle class and rich families did. It takes political courage to make decisions that take decision making authority away from those who are accustomed to have it, and advocate giving it to those historically outside the decision-making halls. For example, one way to orchestrate food programs that actually help people is to bypass the non-profits that usually do the work of governments to provide food to low income families. On the contrary to this presubscribed concept of policy implementation, I advocated for direct support to these families. That way, we remove an element of bureaucracy that was only slowing down the potential of support. The importance of wide spread policy ownership will stay with me in the future.
I have another three years in this term of city council. At this point in my life, I’m not sure if I should run for re-election. Would I have more impact in a different position? What about if I work in non-profits full time? Is there research that needs to be done that I can work on for the system in place? These are all questions I’m exploring. I do know one thing for certain though: I love doing the work. Serving people is the most fulfilling element of government work. There’s no secret my love for intersecting theological practice into policy practice; I think the two fields operate well together. What I am interested in doing for certain is putting every ounce of my being into improving the mechanisms of government in my city. Whether I run for re-election, run for a position with a wider influence, or move into a different field, the skills gained from my six months understanding important policy implementation practices will stay with me.
My words of wisdom may be shocking to some but they are necessary for people to hear: policy is not about you. It’s not about being the smartest in the room, or taking credit for work done, or preparing the best argument. Policy is about the end user. It’s about the improvement given to someone else’s life. Throw away your own ego, your own desire for gaining credit or credentials, and get your hands dirty and work hard to improve the lives of others. Showcasing a reverence for life at every stage of the policy implementation process will make you a better thinker, a better team player, a better implementer, and a better person.
This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.