When discussions turn to politics, they often focus on national issues. News consumers are incessantly inundated with stories about contentious healthcare reform, difficult wars abroad and harrowing budget battles in Washington’s corridors of power.
National politics captivate us, inspire us, enrage us. They are the objects of both our highest hopes and our deepest reservations. Washington, D.C., is almost 3,000 miles from Stanford’s campus, yet it often appears to be the only location of political import for Stanford students.
The national government and its workings are undeniably important, but — on a daily and monthly basis — not the most important. Not even close. For real power and for valuable service, one needs to look no further than local government. I did not know this for a long time but, soon after I started my Stanford in Government (SIG) Fellowship in the San José Office of the City Auditor, I learned very quickly.
The Auditor’s office analyzes various city departments to ensure that they operate efficiently and maximize services to the taxpayers. During my time in the office, I have been awakened to the importance of local government. My own work consists of an audit of library hours and staffing to discover whether the library system is maximizing hours given recent budget cuts. This may seem dry to most, but libraries offer critical and invaluable civic services and regulating their work is of great significance considering their lack of resources.
In the past, the Auditor’s office has analyzed fields as diverse as fire prevention, water treatment and graffiti abatement. These local prerogatives may not appear on CNN, but they are incredibly important and have immediate significance to our day-to-day civic lives, which is less true of many of the issues and policy goals that take center-stage in Washington, D.C.
City governments provide many of the core services we rely on daily yet, at Stanford, they receive little attention among students. A discussion on Social Security is obviously important, but of immediate importance is whether the fountain in the room delivers clean, drinkable water. A symposium on national security may be valuable, but it is also vital for the locals of a town or city that the buildings comply with the local codes and remain free of graffiti. In the Auditor’s office, we strive to ensure that these essential services efficiently utilize taxpayer dollars to serve San José’s residents. My fellowship has forced me to reexamine my belief that national government is the most important political unit in my life and the lives of my peers.
However, my reexamination did not stop there. At a school like Stanford, we operate under a set of rules that encourage individual achievement. Who can say the “best” thing in a seminar to stand out to the professor? Who can set the curve on a biology exam? Who can land that valuable internship in Silicon Valley? Stanford students live within a system that incentivizes individuals to “stand out,” and we respond accordingly.
When I first arrived at the office, I assumed that the same rules would apply. I sought to contribute as much as possible in meetings and frequently offered ideas in team discussions. As I was soon to discover, different rules lead to different outcomes, and the behavior that allows students to succeed at Stanford may lead to grave mistakes within the office.
Through some honest feedback, I began to realize that I needed to develop skills that are impossible to learn in a classroom: how to truly listen to what someone is saying and isn’t saying, how to act in meetings where it may be far more valuable to remain silent than to project yourself and your ideas repeatedly, how to make people comfortable sharing information and how to work in an office setting.
Thus far, my summer has been an incredible experience. The work isn’t outwardly glamorous, and I will not be able to boast about my time in some exotic locale on my resume, but I have learned an immense amount and have begun to realize the tremendous but subtle importance local governance has on my life and those of my peers.
I have gotten the chance to work on a project that can hopefully improve a valuable city service and in the process, despite several setbacks, I have developed both professionally and personally. Throughout the summer, I broadened my local perspective both within government and for myself.
– Brandon Camhi (firstname.lastname@example.org)