Measuring Diversity in Local Government Leadership

Dallas City Hall, the seat of the city's municipal government.

Dallas City Hall, the seat of the city's municipal government. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

A new project from Engaging Local Government Leaders compiles self-reported diversity data from 2,000 local governments.

Local government officials often discuss whether the leadership in their communities—city council members, mayors, city managers, administrators—reflects the diversity of the residents they represent. Despite the interest, there’s never been a comprehensive attempt to track diversity in local governments across the country—until now.

The Diversity Dashboard, a joint effort between Engaging Local Government Leaders and OpenGov, compiled self-reported data on gender, race, age and veteran status of nearly 2,000 local government leaders across the country. It’s the first nationwide analysis of diversity metrics among leaders across all forms of local government, including towns, townships, cities and counties.

The goal of the project is to examine diversity markers across multiple local governments to see what can be learned, and what can be done to improve those trends, said Kirsten Wyatt, co-founder and executive director of ELGL.

“We’ve known from other studies that have been done that local government leaders tend to be older, white men, and we wanted to look at the full landscape of local government leaders to see if that was true across all forms of government of all sizes,” Wyatt told Route Fifty. “And if it was, to see what we could learn from that. Or if there were pockets—geographically, demographically—where perhaps that leadership was getting more diverse, and what we can learn from that as well.”

The project, funded via Kickstarter campaign, is an expansion of a previous survey on diversity in government leadership among North Carolina’s 100 counties. Both projects relied on online surveys, asking government officials to self-report their information. For the Diversity Dashboard, research coordinators began by pulling census data for each state to identify the existing local governments, then reaching out to municipal or county leagues to cross-reference their membership lists to ensure that no municipalities had been overlooked.

Different kinds of local leaders responded, depending on the form of government, such as chief administrative officers, mayors or city managers. In some places, more than one leader might have participated. On the dashboard, users can look at the aggregate data, or drill down to see trends in states or particular municipalities.

Some of the results reflected long-held assumptions about government leadership. For example, two-thirds of respondents are white, while African-Americans are the next closest single race or ethnic group at 1.87 percent of respondents, followed by Hispanic leaders at 1.45 percent. More than 2 percent of respondents identified as belonging to more than one group, and 26.51 percent declined to disclose a race or ethnicity.

By state, Texas has the most minority respondents at 20, followed by Florida (14), Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (9) and Georgia and Alaska (both 8). All 10 respondents in Wisconsin are from smaller municipalities, ranging in population from 454 (the village of Coloma) to 3,433 (the city of Seymour).

Nearly half of respondents (46.80 percent) are male, while a quarter (25.97 percent) identified as female. But 26.51 percent didn’t include their gender.

Nearly half of respondents are 50 years or older, while just 8.16 percent of participating government leaders are between the ages of 21 and 39. Mayor participants in particular skew toward the older end of the age spectrum—44 percent are at least 60 years old, while 26.42 percent fall between the ages of 50 and 59 and 16.35 percent are between the ages of 40 to 49. Just 5.03 percent of mayors are under the age of 39, illustrating the “silver tsunami” of the looming mass retirement of Baby Boomers in government.

“It’s a topic that is honestly on almost every city management or municipal association’s conference agenda, and sometimes it’s just visibly obvious in a room that people are closer to retirement than they are to college graduation,” Wyatt said. “The data reaffirms that, and I think if any organization was questioning where to focus their efforts, this reenforces the idea of developing the skill-sets of people who are at the department-head level and may be able to take on a city-manager role in the next five years.”

Since the dataset went live, it’s continued to evolve. Researchers have received an additional 75 completed surveys since the project launched this week, and will continue to accept responses at least through October.

“We knew that we could wait until it was absolutely done and perfect, but that might have been another year,” Wyatt said. “So we said, ‘Let’s set a goal and release what we have at this point,’ kind of knowing that would spur others to participate once they saw how the data was arrayed and how it was being used. We’ve been obvious in saying that this is a work in progress and we want to get as many people as we can.”

Potential uses for the data include academic research, as well as providing a jumping-off point for conversations about how to improve diversity in leadership. Wyatt is also hopeful that municipal associations will begin to collect diversity information about their own members and upload it to the dashboard annually to continue the learning process.

“It’s really this idea that what gets measured, gets improved,” she said. “You can’t solve a problem that you can’t identify. Some people have said, ‘We know that local government is predominantly white and predominantly male,’ but what we wanted to do was get that starting point to start that conversation and use it to raise awareness of the fact that our organization is deeply committed to improving diversity in the local government leadership.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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