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Spotlighting Careers in the Public Sector: Jason Silva
Meet the public sector talent that makes it all work
Public sector careers tend to take a backseat to their Private Sector counterparts, but not in this series. We’re aiming the spotlight on our public sector partners and the incredible impact they have on our communities and society. From emergency service and healthcare to education and finance, the span of careers in the public sector is diverse.
This week we’re excited to turn the spotlight on Jason Silva, Town Administrator for the Town of Dunstable, Massachusetts.
A Bit About Jason
Jason Silva is the Town Administrator for the Town of Dunstable, Massachusetts. He has held a wide variety of positions in the municipal government world and enjoys learning the ins and outs of taking them on. We talked about the challenges of working in a small town versus a larger town, public accountability, and Larry Bird.
Career Story Interview
Q: Can you tell me what you do and how you got started?
A: I’m the Town Administrator in the Town of Dunstable. I got started in government working for the City of Salem as the Chief of Staff to the Mayor, Kim Driscoll, for about 7 years. That was the first time that I was introduced to municipal government and I fell in love with it as I learned the role there. I was a sponge initially in Salem, just learning as much as I could.
I always tell the story of one of the first calls I received in the office. It was a resident, a constituent waiting to report a pothole to get a pothole filled. I remember getting off the phone and going, ‘Okay, who the heck fills potholes around here?’ I had no idea; I was really green when I first started in the field. I’ve bounced around a little bit, but I’ve been blessed with a lot of really rich work experiences in a lot of different areas. Ultimately my first love and my passion is municipal government so I’ve consistently found my way back.
Q: Can you tell me about the Town of Dunstable and your department?
A: The Town of Dunstable is a small residential rural community with 3,400 people. There’s some business community, but it’s very limited. I would say it’s an agricultural farming community and I’ve been here for about five months. One of the things I’m enjoying most about the role right now is learning more about the community. In my role here as Town Administrator, we have a small staff but a really committed professional and dedicated staff that I feel very fortunate to work with. Right now, we’re preparing for the Town Meeting, which is always a busy time of year, so we’re preparing the budget working with the Board of Selectman.
I always think the budget is the most important thing that we work on because it not only sets the financial course but sets the strategic course of the town and sets up priorities for the coming year. I started in December and they hadn’t started the budget process yet, so it was really just like being thrown into it and getting started as quickly as possible. Like I said, I’m grateful to have a really professional, committed, and dedicated staff. I’m managing the day-to-day operations and supporting the staff as much as I can and as much as possible.
I’m also working with the Select Board to set the strategic course and priorities of the town and really seeing to it that our work collectively here is always focused on achieving those goals. It’s very easy in a small community like this to get down into the weeds, and sometimes get lost into the weeds. So, make sure that we are always setting our sights on what’s important for achieving those priorities and achieving those goals. Project management is a big part of it.
It’s very similar, but in some ways a whole different job than I was doing. Before this, I was the Town Administrator in Marblehead where there are 20,000 people instead of 3,400. There’s a full complement of full-time staff. While I was involved in a lot of the same things, the extent I was involved in them is very different. It’s new to me here, but because of that difference, it’s also been a really fun and exciting new role for someone who’s been involved in municipal government for a long time realizing the things that I didn’t know, even though I’ve been involved for a long time. It’s been a fun learning experience for a whole lot of different things.
Q: What do you wish you knew before beginning a career in public administration?
A: The reason that I’m consistently drawn to the public sector, and in particular municipal, local government is because of the real, tangible impact you can have on people’s day-to-day lives from big to small. I’ve also worked in other nonprofits and at the state level, and I’ve had a great experience in those fields, but it is different in municipal government. I mean, I’m right on Main Street. If someone has a problem, my door’s open and they walk right in, sit down and talk to me about it. And that’s sometimes challenging, but it’s refreshing too.
It’s energizing to have that constant interaction and feedback so I guess the accountability is real in local government. And if someone does have a concern, a question or complaint, if they’re dissatisfied with service, you’re gonna see ’em walking down the street, you’re gonna see ’em at the corner store, you’re gonna see ’em walking in your office. Understanding that level of interaction and accountability is part of what draws me to the work and why I enjoy it, but it’s also something that’s different from a lot of sectors.
“…the impact that you can have on the day-to-day lives of people in the community and incrementally making improvements is something that motivates me every day.”Jason Silva,
Q: What’s an achievement you’re proud of so far as Town Administrator?
A: I’d say having just started here in Dunstable in December and managing the budget process has really been the one achievement that I’ve been the most proud of. I’ve had to quickly learn the processes as there are variances and differences between communities. Working with the Select Board and the Advisory Board to put together a budget we’re all supportive of for Town Meeting has been quite a lot of work but I think we’ve done quite well. It’s been a robust conversation and process and it’s been the main focal point of my work over the last 4-5 months.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge of working in public government?
A: The level of accountability is real – and it’s direct. There’s no hiding in municipal government. Like I said, it’s something that I enjoy about the job, but it’s a challenge.
There’s always more work than resources and staff. There’s no question about it. Finances in every community are a challenge in how to manage that and deal with it while also meeting the needs and providing the level of services that people expect. That’s always on the top of my list, making sure that budgets are sound and there’s long-term financial sustainability, but also that you’re investing in the areas that people want and you’re able to provide the services people expect.
One of the things that I think people in general have struggled with is, and I’m not seeing it here as much, which is great, but civic discourse especially during COVID, was difficult to manage. People adapting to the new rules and getting used to this platform [Zoom]. I think in that transition and during that really difficult COVID-19 time period, I think discourse kind of got off track a little bit. It got negative and at times personal towards volunteer boards and committees and town officials, which I think did make things much more difficult than in the past. So I think probably those things are the biggest challenges.
Q: And your favorite part?
A: I’m a people person, so the level of interaction I have with people, you know, being able to interact with people on a constant basis. We have a small staff, so volunteers do a lot of work that in other communities staff are doing. They’re dedicated to improving the community and they’re putting in a whole lot of time here in Dunstable. Being able to have that collaboration and just the impact that you can have on the day-to-day lives of people in the community and incrementally making improvements is something that motivates me every day.
Q: Did you or do you have any mentors in your career?
A: I worked for Kim Driscol in Salem for the longest time period anywhere. I’ve really learned the ropes from her and learned how to get things done in municipal government, I think. She’s still somebody who I reach out to often to kind of pick her brain and also when I need a pep talk.
I’d say there are a lot of smart, committed professional managers across the state who I’ve been able to kind of build relationships with over time. That network is something that I rely on a lot and so I don’t know that they’re mentors, but there is this network of people who I’m consistently relying on. Right before this, I was on the phone with a former colleague in Marblehead asking a question about procurement. There are a lot of really, really good people who are willing to help along the way.
Rapid Fire Questions for Fun
Q: Do you have a favorite small business in Dunstable?
A: The one I probably frequent the most is the general store because they have a Dunkin Donuts. I should really have an IV of coffee because I constantly have this big bucket of coffee on my desk.
There’s a nice little cafe around the corner too, Farmhouse Cafe, that I usually visit on Fridays to get breakfast.
Q: If you had to choose another job in your town government, what job would you want to do?
A: I’m completely unqualified to do this but I’d love to work with Engineering/ DPW on infrastructure projects. If I had to go back, and if there was another option that I could choose, it would probably be in the engineering field because I enjoy seeing projects from design to implementation, actually being able to walk down the street and say, ‘Oh look, we did that.’
Q: What’s a bucket list travel destination you have?
A: My background is Portuguese, and I haven’t been to Portugal yet, so that’s definitely on the list, but I’m gonna give you another one. My hero growing up was Larry Bird, a player for the Celtics. On my bucket list is taking a trip to his hometown in Indiana, French Lick, and Terre Haute, and checking out the scene. There’s a lot of Larry Bird stops and there’s a restaurant with his memorabilia. I’d go to Indiana State where he went to college and all that. So those two are my bucket list travel spots.
More on careers in the public sector:
Patrick Dello Russo: CFO for the City of Taunton, MA
Kate Fitzpatrick: Town Manager for the Town of Needham, MA
Leon A. Gaumond: Town Manager for the Town of Weston, MA
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