CNCounty News

County leaders explore ‘explosive’ ideas in New Mexico desert

Business of Counties participants

Key Takeaways

Conversations on the state of the county workforce and its competitive advantages drove input from administrators, managers and chief administrative officers last month during a Business of Counties convening in Sante Fe County, N.M.

Participants represented executive leaders from the nation’s largest counties who collectively oversee more than $72 billion in investments, lead a workforce of more than 400,000 and serve more than 37 million residents each day. 

Counties have long struggled to compete in the labor market to attract and retain talent, with many suffering from high vacancy rates, early retirements of longtime employees, a lack of qualified applicants and difficulty balancing the emerging trend in employee preferences with the need to be present for the community.  Leaders in some of America’s largest counties are focused on other solutions like the work experience and creating efficiencies in county government. 

County leaders discussed integrating Artificial Intelligence to supplement tedious tasks and create additional capacity for staff to focus on more important work. They also explored creating pathway programs to showcase the opportunities available within county government and rethinking of the county employee with a focus on upward mobility, professional and personal development opportunities and work-life balance. 

Conversations on workforce are often tied to mental health. Burnout, personal wellness and engagement with the organization all strongly relate to an employee’s mental health. At the same time, behavioral health conditions across the country are reaching crisis levels with acute impacts on residents and the county’s ability to serve them. 

Guest speaker Dr. James “Butch” Rosser illustrated a few key points regarding wellness, stating that mental wellbeing is about more than “just yoga,” for example. It’s a commitment to physical, mental and emotional well-being, he said. Wellness literally starts with “we,” meaning leaders must take care of themselves in order to take care of others; and, wellness is not a one-time event, project or program, but a long-term commitment that must be consistently evaluated and iterated upon to achieve success, he noted.

Leaders shared their mental health initiatives, such as implementing new revenue streams to support community behavioral health programs, establishing clinical services within county buildings to give staff easy access to support, leveraging resources to address substance use disorders within the community and implementing strategies to prevent burnout among county staff. 

The public sector is often seen as the last stronghold against innovation, but public administration officials in the nation’s largest counties have initiated new strategies to advance county functions for residents. 

Awash in data, counties are better equipped to inform policy, workforce and fiscal decisions. Challenges abound, however, with data privacy, siloed data across systems and creating a culture of data-driven decision-making. As county leaders in public administration continue to innovate, data will be at the center of conversations.   

Members of the Business of Counties network also had the chance to tour Los Alamos National Lab, home to the Manhattan Project during World War II and currently one of 17 research-focused institutions under the U.S. Department of Energy advancing technology, engineering and national security. The lab maintains numerous community partnerships with the surrounding counties and communities, such as the Tech Transfer program, through which New Mexico communities can leverage the lab’s expertise. That expertise includes solving difficult problems and commercializing innovative technologies, like new techniques for building roads that could yield counties cost savings of more than 80%. 

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