When You Work For a City, Your Job Is Everywhere

February 1, 1998
Workforce talked with Donald E. Walsh, personnel director for the City of Phoenix, about managing a fast-growing public entity.

Q: How did you get into the HR field?
A: I didn't start out in the human resources profession. After I graduated from the University of Rhode Island in industrial management, I first worked for Boeing in Seattle. Then I was drafted into the army and worked as a clinical psychology specialist doing testing of soldiers and their dependents. That got me closer to the human resources area. After the service, my first job in HR was with the City of East Providence, Rhode Island, which had a population of 45,000 people and 450 employees. I was there for three years. Then I was hired by the City of Phoenix, where I worked as a classification analyst and supervisor of employment services division. After two years of that, I went to the City of Kettering, Ohio, as its first personnel director. I then returned to Phoenix as its first assistant personnel director. I served in that position for 27 years before becoming the director in 1997.

Q: What do you like about working for the City of Phoenix?
A: What I like about working for city government [in general] is that your job is around you all the time. When you drive home, you see your work in action, such as a policeman or a water line [being repaired]. Our product is service, and so the emphasis in recent years isn't only about how many miles of streets you repair; it's on customer services. We've given more care to that over the last several years than ever before.

Q: What do you think is the greatest misperception of Phoenix?
A: Outside of the state, people think Phoenix is a cow town-that is, we're a bunch of cowboys with horses. They're amazed to discover it's a modern, very progressive city. And yet, we run our city government with a small-city [sensibility]. Our residents have access to their elected officials on a daily basis.

Q: What's the most challenging aspect of running a city like Phoenix?
A: Our HR department serves 24 separate departments. And they all have demands on them to be competitive. For example, our public works department is competing against the private sector to be the contractor for trash and solid-refuse pick up. European firms are coming into the city and improving water and sewage departments with their new technology. So the city has to reengineer to be competitive.

Q: Which HR issues have been the key issues within the last few years?
A: One is our being able to adapt to changing federal legislation, such as the FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act], ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] and FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act]. There are different practices in the public sector that are harder to translate into practice than in the private sector.

Q: What are the most important HR lessons you've learned over the years?
A: That each employee who works for the city has a lot of personal needs as well as what [the city] needs from them on the job. To me, the biggest issue is child care. Dual-income parents have such an emotional and financial struggle to provide good day care and education-as well as bringing home two incomes.

Q: What have you learned in terms of measuring bottom-line results of your initiatives?
A: We've measured our success in a variety of ways. For example, we use employee surveys, focus groups and measure enrollment in the programs to determine their effectiveness. We ask our employees to agree or disagree with statements, such as: "Overall, the City of Phoenix is a good place to work"; "I would recommend city employment to my friends who are interested"; "The city's employee benefits are as good or better than most employers in the area"; and "The job I do is important."

Workforce, February 1998, Vol. 77, No. 2, p. 74.