Paul Cohen has been the town manager for the town of Chelmsford for the better part of a decade, and he was nice enough to participate in an interview, discussing some of the things that he does on a daily basis in his current capacity. In his role as a local government official, he has a number of different responsibilities, and his job can be both rewarding and challenging. He was extremely candid in discussing the various elements of his job, and he made clear that his is one that he likes returning to on a daily basis.
One of the things that Cohen made clear was that his role as town manager provides him a number of different opportunities to make an immediate impact on the community around him. One of the challenges with national government, it seems, is that people do not have the chance to make an impact on individual people. While they might be able to see the effects of their work in statistics, the actual human impact is muted. At the local level, though, he gets the chance to help people in a range of ways. Sometimes it is helping the entire community by building some that they can use, including new recreational areas or a new fire station. Other times, the impact is more individual. He might get to help a veteran find a job, providing immediate benefits.
He made clear that while there are some good things about working as a town manager, there are lots of negatives and challenges that must be confronted, as well. Things are not all cheery all the time. The primary challenge that a town manager might struggle with has everything to do with funding. At the town level, many different things might help the community, and they are all worthy of funding in their own special ways. The problem, of course, is that there is no way to make every person happy. What is one to do when a free kindergarten center would make everything better, but the town does not have the money to make it happen? This is exceptionally challenging it seems, and he made clear that one of the difficulties is prioritizing among these things. The goal is to choose the individual projects that might make the most sense for the town, and there can be many. Likewise, he made it clear that most people do not have much of an idea what goes on in local government. This means that part of the battle is informing people about what goes on at this level so that people can fairly analyze what the government has going on at any given time.
One of the interesting things about Cohen is that he seems to be exceptionally well-educated for this position, perhaps too much so. He has an undergraduate degree in public policy from Carnegie Mellon, and he got a graduate degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. According to him, though, this education has provided him with the ability to do his job at a high level. One of the most important benefits has been the ability to deal with analytics better than some of the people around him. In the data-driven age, even local governments have the opportunity to optimize the way they collect and deal with data in order to make optimal decisions on the correct course of action. Cohen’s background enables him to do this very well, giving him a dimension that can help a small municipality that might not have much money to burn.
He made clear that working in the public sector has its advantages, but one needs to be aware of the downside while also being committed to the cause. The public sector, he said, can be exceptionally taxing, with a person having to put in long hours and often having to switch around their schedule on short notice. Perhaps most importantly, people in this field make less money than people in the private market. This is important because some in public service do not come into the industry with knowledge of how things are going to be. According to him, having the heart to do it is one of the most important things, as commitment will carry a person very far if they want to be good at public service.
He stresses that self-awareness is critical for one wanting to get involved in public service. Some get involved in this sector for selfish reasons. Others get involved because they really want to make things better for the community around them. The latter people are more likely to have a successful career, while the former may end up with broken dreams because their expectations were just not reasonable. Once a person gets involved, it is apparently difficult to make transitions, gets raises, and be truly rewarded fairly from a financial perspective. This is the obvious trade-off that comes when one chooses to serve the public in this way. As long as a person is aware of what is going to happen, then that person can ultimately be happy and have a good, long career. The important thing, though, is for a person to think hard about what he wants to do and why he wants to do it before ever entering into public service or local government. He said he would recommend this career to his child under the right circumstances.