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A look ahead to the 2021 ICMA Annual Conference

A look ahead to the 2021 ICMA Annual Conference

7 min read


A look ahead to the 2021 ICMA Annual Conference


The 2021 ICMA Annual Conference, October 3-6 in Portland, Ore., is themed “restart.” The 2020 conference was held virtually. This year, attendees will be attending in-person and through a digital experience.  The conference will be an opportunity for local government professionals to get a fresh start and reimagine their goals. In advance of the conference, SmartBrief heard from Wake County, N.C., Manager David Ellis, who is the chairman of the Conference Planning Committee, to learn more about what to expect this year.

This year’s theme is “Let’s restart and begin to reimagine.” What does that mean to you?

We have all been so focused on COVID-19 for the past 18 months; this conference is an opportunity to focus on other important issues affecting local governments and apply any lessons learned from the pandemic. If we haven’t learned any lessons coming out of the pandemic, that’s a shame. 

David Ellis, 
County Manager, 
Wake County, N.C.

I’m going into the conference asking questions such as:

How can we reimagine the services we provide?

How can we engage with the community? 

How do we deal with health disparities in various communities?

How do we continue to motivate existing local government employees and strengthen the pipeline that provides us with new employees?

There are a lot of lessons we should incorporate into our operations, including the importance of communicating with employees and our communities. In Wake County, we could not have provided the number of vaccines we did without the engagement and buy-in of our stakeholders and partners. 

What sessions on the agenda this year are you looking forward to the most? 

There are two areas that are especially intriguing:

Career Support

Local government professionals have very demanding jobs. Add COVID-19 on top of our responsibilities, and we’ve all been sprinting for the past 18 to 20 months. 

We need to look at how we learn. We need to explore relationships with co-workers and our own self-care. We should ask how we take care of ourselves while continuing to try to care for and enhance our community. Ultimately, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be here. This area provides an opportunity to look at how we take care of ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually.  

Racial Equity and Social Justice

We need to explore what racial equity and social justice mean to people. We need to ask what it means for local government, how we should get involved and why we need to engage in racial equity efforts. It’s easy for local governments to dialogue with the NAACP. Black Lives Matter is a younger, less formal example of why we need to be able to sit down and have conversations, just like we would with NAACP and other civil rights groups.  

What is typically your favorite aspect of the conference?

I enjoy getting there and seeing my colleagues and friends from all over, people that have the same focus on enhancing their communities as I do. 

It’s refreshing to realize that I’m not the only one out there; that there are thousands of people at the same conference who share a thought process about what we’re looking for going forward. 

I know I’ll come out of the conference refreshed, confident that I can do the work of local government and keep moving forward.

Is there a takeaway from a previous conference that changed how you handled a situation in your city?

When I was a deputy county manager, I went to a session at an ICMA conference that focused on responding to natural disasters. When I became a manager, I incorporated lessons from that session about making sure your organization is prepared to respond. You can’t wait until the day of a natural disaster to respond. You have to practice; people have to know their roles. It’s critical that everyone understands the incident command structure. One of the first things I did when I took over as manager was to set up an internal team and really analyze what we had been doing and what we could have done better. That way, we were ready when we did have a natural disaster.

We’ll use a lot of lessons learned from COVID-19 going forward. 

Making sure everyone’s on the same page during a natural disaster is critical, because that’s when the community is looking for the local government to come in and provide assistance. We have to know what we’re doing.

What advice do you have for first-time attendees?  

For in-person attendees, my advice is to engage, engage, engage! It can be intimidating to be a new attendee — I was intimidated the first time I went. For starters, go sit at a table that has an open chair where you may not know anyone. Start a conversation and really engage with people. Get to know them.

When you get back to the office, send an email to the people you met letting them know you enjoyed meeting them. It’s a way to build bridges.

It’s so easy to stick with people you know at the conference, but you’ll benefit so much more from getting to know as many people as you can while you’re there.

How can people attending digitally magnify their sense of involvement?

One suggestion I have for people attending digitally is to go somewhere other than their usual workplace to listen and watch. Maybe a library or a different office. If you work from home, get out of the house. It’s so easy to get drawn back into work otherwise. 

Some groups have looked at having small gatherings of people get together to view the conference. 

Of the 15 conference topic areas, what might someone originally overlook that they should really find a session or two about and dive into?

If they haven’t already planned to attend at least one session related to the future of the profession, they should add that to their agenda. 

We need to think about what the profession is going to look like in 10 years or 20 years and how people can prepare themselves.  

In years past, there was a huge emphasis on community engagement, so everyone started doing community engagement. That became embedded in a lot of local government organizations. 

Now we need to move on to ask how social justice and racial equity can get embedded too. Some people will say they don’t believe local government should be engaged in social justice, that it’s a political thing. 

What we do has to change over time with how our communities are changing.


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Paula Kiger edits the ICMA SmartBrief and is looking forward to attending the ICMA 2021 Conference as a digital participant. She welcomes your ideas by email about what sessions she should attend at the conference. She also edits SmartBrief’s other nonprofit sector newsletters and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and as @biggreenpen on Twitter.