Make Local Budgets Go Further with Academic Partnerships

Learn how academic partnerships and a passion for progress can take your local government on a small budget further.


Molly Curley O’Brien, a Master in Public Policy/Master of Business Administration candidate from the Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy at Mills College in Oakland, California, encouraged city managers and other local government staff attending the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in Baltimore to consider contracting with a post-secondary school and letting students move projects forward through academic partnerships.

For local governments that have limited access to funding, it’s a good way to move the needle forward. In addition, there are also workforce benefits for government employers, O’ Brien noted.

That would be lovely if every new idea came with a full time staff person,” O’Brien said before she shared insights from her experience working to develop labor standards for the city of Emeryville, California.

Government projects that come through academic partnerships are viewed as excellent opportunities for students, she said. And, a partnership with a school that share the same values is sustainable, creating long-term support for cities.

Academic Partnership Advances Emeryville’s Labor Standards Work

The city of just more than 10,000 people maintains employment for 20,190 jobs. Emeryville’s Department of Economic Development and Housing, which has five full time employees that manages numerous community development, housing and labor tasks, needed support to develop interpretive labor standard regulations and related administrative processes, perform outreach and then evaluate and improve its program.

She shared details of the city’s Mills College contract:

Addressing Concerns About Academic Partnerships

O’Brien said it’s generally expected that students will be compensated for the work, but pointed out, its not “the salary of someone with that degree already earned. If there is no financial capacity, there are other ways to compensate, such as considering the student as a future job candidate.

She said that if there is hesitation about the continuity of government programs established through academic partnerships -- such as when participating students move on after graduation -- to remember the partnership is with a school and not a particular grad student.

Partner with deans and department heads,” she said.

O’Brien also said that for cities that do not have post-secondary schools in town, they can:

  • Partner with schools in their region
  • Partner with an online institution
  • Leverage relationships through their residents attending college elsewhere and manage a partnership with online tools

One attendee asked how students are selected and evaluated and O’Brien said the school leads the hiring process, “so you’re receiving the cream of the crop.”

While there may be a lot of ‘what-ifs,’ they can be overcome with creativity, she said.

Benefits of Academic Partnerships

By taking advantage of school projects, cities willing to “let an assignment come to life” can benefit both parties. But for local government tasks on a limited budget, like Emeryville’s labor standards tasks, the benefits are numerous:

  • Ongoing support
  • New innovation
  • Help for overburdened staff
  • Cost efficiency increase
  • Build a pool of future hires
Think about retention rates going up,” said O’Brien.
Steps to Establishing Academic Partnerships

“The secret to this partnership is relationship building,” said O’Brien, so the first step is reach out and proceed in the following manner:

  1. Understand expectations and build trust
  2. Identify the need – what would be really dynamic for your local government to have?
  3. Create a symbiotic relationship that is possible – develop a scope of project and measurements together that reflects the priorities of both
How to Get the Conversation Started

O’Brien offered the following conversation starters at the city management level:

  • What can lighten the workload of staff in a way that is helpful and morale-boosting?
  • What ideas require research and implementation there never seems to be time for?
  • What is the follow up you have needed to do since receiving policy recommendations but haven’t gotten around to yet?
Have a Passion for Progress

For students leaving academic institutions for work in local governments, some may they quickly face big challenges. For Kyle Michel, he presented “Big Problems in the Heart of Iowa” about his experience becoming the city clerk of Elkhart, Iowa, and picking up some tasks that came out of a 2015 community visioning program funded by a grant under the Iowa Living Roadways Program.

Chief among the challenges from the visioning program was a $5 million wastewater treatment facility (WWTF) project they did not have the funds for, and Michel said he did not have previous experience with capital projects.

The visioning program was a citizen-driven committee working with professional engineers to paint out what they want that city to look like in terms of transportation and as a destination. And while the envisioned project images were on display, there was largely little movement on the ideas. While Elkhart, a town of about 815 people, is close to the Des Moines metro area, it didn’t participate in local and regional planning organizations.

He asked for help, and:

  • Attended conferences
  • Followed through with interested parties -- such as a regional rural water association that offered free services the city had not been utilizing
  • Applied for numerous grants

Michel said he brought in $460,000 and performed a household income survey to capture a financial picture of availability. In June 2018, Elkhart broke ground on the force main and the WWTF’s treatment lagoon.

“Be that source of change in your community,” he advised.

When asked how elected officials responded to the change, Michel said some were doing business as usual, and didn’t want change and “those were the ones I really had to work on with doing better than what they’ve done in the past.”

To accomplish a slow transition he exposed them to the benefits and also suggested getting elected officials out of the municipality to learn and connect with others.

Editor’s Note: Updated October 3, 2018. We have updated O’Brien’s slide deck with her final version presented at ICMA 2018. Also, we initially located Mills College in Emeryville, but it’s located in nearby Oakland. We regret the error.

Thank you Molly for reaching out to Gov1 and we look forward to hearing more from you and your hard-working peers entering the Gov space. Please reach out with your insights to share with our readers by contacting editor {@}

Review and download O’Brien’s and Michel’s presentations:

Curley OBrien FinalFinalFinal ICMA Big Expectations by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

KMichel Big Expectations 0 by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Andrea Fox is Editor of and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.