Getting More Women in City Hall: Leveraging Private-Public Partnerships for Equity

I was hired as the first female Chief Innovation Officer in the country in early 2013 and I have to admit I think that is pretty cool. However, I am also very much aware of the gender gap that I see around me in meetings at City Hall and with community stakeholders. Often it is all men around the table, making decisions and guiding the future of our city. In Kansas City, Missouri, however, Mayor Sly James – who has frequently and publicly made the same observation – has made a commitment to changing that dynamic.

In March 2013, Mayor Sly James launched the Women’s Empowerment (WE) initiative and tasked a team to look closely at both internal and external practices to build greater equity at City Hall – the first of its kind in the nation. The goals of WE include creating a more inclusive and diverse organization and addressing entrepreneurial women-owned business processes. In short, how do we make City Hall a better place to work and do business?

The WE initiative had actually started five months before the announcement with a partnership with the the Women’s Foundation of Greater Kansas City, the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) Women’s Center, and the Central Exchange. Partnering with organizations that had the capacity for research, a network of women-owned businesses, and a shared mission to support the advancement of women, the Office of the Mayor was able to fully leverage community resources that would have cost us too much to replicate on our own. The WE initiative is a great example of effectively leveraging public-private partnerships to accomplish shared goals with the much needed expertise and capacity of the community.

The Women’s Foundation, for instance, quickly mobilized and coordinated research on how our city boards, commissions and task forces operate by surveying women who currently serve, previously served and may have potentially served on these boards and commissions. With a significant influence on policy and governance, these boards and commissions are a great opportunity to bring in civic leaders to help shape the future of our city. It is important for these volunteers to reflect our community and the WE initiative sought to identify if these opportunities were not only accommodating but attracting diverse candidates. The Women’s Foundation is now coordinating a program to help create a pipeline of talent for these positions through coaching and awareness-building.

The WE initiative also took a closer look at the workplace – not just in City Hall but in all departments which includes field staff, office staff and management. UMKC helped us facilitate a series of focus groups to ask women and men what they experienced and perceived as barriers to advancement in the workplace. By offering a third party facilitator, we were able to glean some significant findings and insight from staff across the organization. Staff felt more comfortable being honest about their experiences without any concerns of retribution which helps us unearth a few very important issues to be address (I’ll get into the specific issues in a future blog post).

With the help of these partners, the insights gathered from these efforts, coupled with the data extracted from an employee survey, have helped us identify specific opportunities to support employees in expanding and perfecting their skills so that they are competitive and eligible for higher positions within city government; foster an organization culture that nurtures diversity of perspectives and experiences; and eliminate barriers to civic boards and commissions.

Our third community partner, the Central Exchange, has helped us tap a very extensive network of women entrepreneurs with a survey on business processes that impact how women-owned businesses work with the City. As a result of feedback from this outreach, we are developing strategies on how to innovate certification and application processes to enhance customer experience and increasing outreach to trade organizations and business groups.

Without the help of our knowledgeable and dedicated partners, we would not have been able to develop such a focused and strategic initiative for the Mayor in such a short time period. By leveraging the expertise and the capabilities of these partners, tapping into their extensive networks and perspective on these issues, WE has identified opportunities to effect substantial change that will help foster an environment of greater diversity in our public sector workforce and opportunity for the entrepreneurs of Kansas City.

Ashley Z. Hand is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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