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Spotlighting Careers in the Public Sector: Nicole Van Houten
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 clients 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 month we’re excited to turn the spotlight on Nicole Van Houten, Communications and Events Coordinator for the City of Bondurant, Iowa
A Little Bit About Nicole
Nicole Van Houten, the Communications & Events Coordinator for the City of Bondurant, Iowa since 2015, brings a wealth of experience from the private sector to her role in local government. With a Master of Arts in Communications focused on Public Affairs and Advocacy from Drake University, she’s become a pioneering figure in Bondurant’s municipal administration. Nicole, a resident of Bondurant, lives with her husband, two children, and three dogs.
In her position as the sole employee in the Parks & Recreation Department and the city’s first communications professional, Nicole is championing healthy living and transparency in her community. Beyond her official role, she’s an avid gardener and cyclist, actively contributing to the local environment and exploring Central Iowa’s scenic trails.
Nicole’s commitment to community service extends further as a troop leader for a local Girl Scout troop and a dedicated board member of the Bondurant Soccer Club. She also serves as the Sunday School Superintendent at her church, nurturing the spiritual growth of youth, and actively advocates for safe and sustainable transportation as a member of the Central Iowa Bicycle-Pedestrian Roundtable. Nicole’s multifaceted involvement enriches the vibrant community of Bondurant, Iowa.
Q: Tell me about what you do and how you got started
A: I work for a beautiful midwest town in central Iowa. Over eight years ago, I moved to Bondurant, Iowa because of its small-town feel and reputable public school system. Shortly after moving, I became pregnant with my second child and at that point, I had two children under the age of two. I quickly realized that my demanding job in the bustling Des Moines metro wasn’t as flexible as I needed it to be.
There was a local job opportunity at the City of Bondurant, so I applied. I didn’t plan on working in the public sector, the opportunity just presented itself and I went for it. Actually, working for the local government had never been on my radar. It was a blessing in disguise because as I reflect back, this job has evolved into my career. My background in writing, journalism, public service, and training all allowed me to realize the career path I had been traveling. Therefore, enhancing my communications skills by tackling a master’s degree with a concentration on Public Affairs and Advocacy was a sound and thoughtful decision.
Q: Tell me more about the City of Bondurant and your department.
A: Bondurant is a city poised for growth and opportunity which mirrors the dynamic nature of my role as the Communications and Events Coordinator. In this position, I often find myself wearing various hats, which is a common experience among municipal employees.
As the Communications & Events Coordinator, my role encompasses a range of responsibilities. I oversee the planning and coordination of special events, educational camps, and recreational programs for the Parks and Recreation Department, evaluating their effectiveness through analytics and reporting. I also manage volunteers to ensure the City’s annual programs run smoothly, emphasizing a fun, educational, safe, inclusive, and fiscally responsible approach.
Additionally, I play a crucial role in staffing and facilitating the Parks and Recreation Board’s meetings, aiding in their decision-making process and providing guidance to the City Council on matters related to parks, recreation, arts, and culture. This involves advocating for Bondurant Parks and Recreation and participating in the development of parks, trails, and greenways. Furthermore, I handle the management of the City’s online presence, including social media, our website, newsletters, and print materials. This involves tasks such as cataloging media content, copywriting, editing, and publishing various communications with a focus on setting and assessing content effectiveness through data analysis.
One of my proudest moments occurred during the most challenging time in my career—the COVID-19 pandemic. Our city faced unprecedented difficulties, but we were determined to keep our community connected and informed. I spearheaded a campaign to provide vital information to residents, from safety guidelines to resources for those in need. We organized virtual events to boost morale and keep our community spirit alive. The highlight was being recognized with a Voice of the People (VOP) award for Excellence in COVID-19 Engagement by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and National Research Center (NRC). It was a testament to our collective effort and the positive impact we had on Bondurant during a difficult period.
Q: What would you say is your favorite part of working in local government and also the most challenging?
A: My favorite part of working in local government is being on the front line. Everything I do in my daily job positively impacts the community I live in. I work with children, youth, adults, and seniors by providing special events to improve their quality of life, getting them outdoors, learning new skills, and connecting with one another. I work with consultants to plan, design, and implement parks, trails, and green spaces. There is no better feeling than going through a lengthy process of planning, designing, funding, and seeing it come to fruition.
My favorite aspect of working in local government is the tangible impact I see every day. One particular instance that stands out is when we organized a community clean-up day. It was incredible to witness residents, young and old, coming together to beautify our parks and public spaces. Seeing the smiles on their faces and the transformation of our community was a powerful reminder of the positive change we can achieve through local government initiatives.
The most challenging part is not having enough staff or constantly evaluating budgetary priorities. The State and Federal legislatures often change their budgets directly impacting local government budgets. I will say, it takes a thick skin to constantly advocate for Parks and Recreation budgets or advocate for more staff.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you as the Communications and Events Coordinator?
A: No typical day is the same. Although there are consistent deadlines that must be met. It is an important skill as a communications professional to be flexible, be patient, and be present. As an advocate and supporter of the City of Bondurant, I am constantly building relationships and growing connections. Whether it is an interaction with a dad who is registering their daughter for tot-ball or emailing a state senator – all connections matter! Special events are designed to bring Bondurant neighbors outside and connect with one another and nature, special events encourage others from outside the community to witness how truly charming Bondurant is (bonus is if they are an entrepreneur or land developer). It is all about the connections!
Typically my day includes emails, meetings, and phone calls. Constantly planning, writing, and organizing.
Q: What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed since switching from a career in the private sector to a career in local government?
A: The private sector tends to have a shorter decision-making process, whereas the public sector takes much longer due to laws that must be abided. The laws are in place to protect the people. Also in the private sector, you tend to have a smaller target audience, and in local government, you could be serving hundreds or thousands of people.
Q: Have you had any mentors? If so, how have they impacted your career?
A: I do have a mentor currently. But the most impactful partnership I have is leaning on those in my profession in the Des Moines Metro area – we meet throughout the year and connect through email to discuss a variety of professional topics that impact our careers. The Communications professionals are the most supportive, while the Parks and Recreation professionals are often busy and disconnected. Annually I attend a regional conference with the Parks and Recreation professionals and a national conference with the Communications professionals. It is helpful to learn how processes are being managed in different cities and different states throughout the United States.
Q: What’s your biggest achievement so far?
A: During the most difficult time in my career (along with the two natural disasters Bondurant, Iowa experienced) was during the COVID-19 Global Pandemic, I was awarded a Voice of the People (VOP) recognition for Excellence in COVID-19 Engagement by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and National Research Center (NRC) at Poloco on October of 2021.
Q: What is something you wish you’d known before you began your career?
A: I grew up writing for my school newspaper, volunteering for a variety of organizations, and offering my services to different committees through my time working in the private sector which involved writing, networking, training, or volunteering time. It took me taking a step backward in my “career journey” to be more flexible for my children while they were young to realize that working in local government allows me to get paid to do what I’m passionate about – writing, giving back to my community, and serving others.
Q: How has your career evolved and where do you see it going?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I began my career in local government as an Administrative Specialist and was promoted to Communications and Events. The Recreation Coordinator, at the time, was leaving and my boss felt I was a good fit. But rather than taking on that title, my boss wanted to establish the first Communications employee in the City of Bondurant.
As for where it’s going, I guess we’ll see!
Q: Do you have any advice for someone entering local government or your particular job?
A: Absolutely, I’d be happy to share some advice, especially for those considering a career in local government or a role like mine. One of the most important things to understand is that you’ll need to be incredibly versatile and adaptable. Local government roles often require you to wear a lot of hats.
In my position as the Communications and Events Coordinator, I’ve found myself transitioning from event planning to public relations, from social media management to volunteer coordination, and from data analysis to public speaking—all within a single day! It’s like being a conductor in an orchestra, where you need to be proficient in multiple instruments to create a harmonious performance.
So, my advice is to embrace variety and continuous learning. Be open to acquiring new skills, as they will undoubtedly serve you well. But, more importantly, relish the fact that you’ll have the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on your community from various angles. Local government is a dynamic and rewarding field, where every day brings fresh challenges and opportunities to contribute positively to the lives of your fellow residents. Embrace the diversity of tasks and responsibilities that come your way, and you’ll find that it’s the perfect stage for your talents to shine.
Q: What are the benefits of working in the local government vs. private sector?
A: I’ve found that working in local government provides me with a level of flexibility that was often lacking in my previous private sector position. In the fast-paced corporate world, rigid schedules and demanding workloads often make it challenging for me to balance my professional responsibilities with my family life. However, my transition to the City of Bondurant has allowed me to strike a healthier equilibrium.
In local government, I have more control over my work hours, enabling me to actively participate in my children’s activities, be present for important family moments, and simultaneously maintain a fulfilling career. This flexibility has proven invaluable, especially during my children’s formative years, allowing me to be the supportive mother I aspire to be while excelling in my role as Communications and Events Coordinator.
Furthermore, the supportive community of Bondurant has been instrumental in fostering this balance. With a network of neighbors and colleagues who understand the value of family, I feel empowered to embrace my dual roles as a dedicated professional and a loving parent.
Ultimately, the flexibility offered by my local government position has not only enriched my personal life but also contributed to my effectiveness as a public servant. It’s a testament to the advantages of choosing a career path that aligns with your values and allows you to make a positive impact on your community while maintaining a fulfilling family life.
Q: What’s a movie you like to quote the most?
A: I’ve always been a fan of classic movies, and there are a few memorable quotes that I find myself using quite often. One of my all-time favorites is from “Forrest Gump” – “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.” It’s a reminder of the unpredictability of life and the opportunities that come our way.
Q: Do you have a favorite small business in Bondurant?
A: Absolutely! There’s a charming boutique in Bondurant called “Little House on Main.”
Every time I walk through that door, I’m reminded of a quote from “Winnie the Pooh”: “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” And this small business has a big place in my heart, and I can never leave without finding something delightful to decorate my house with. Their business model also includes giving back to those in need – not only do you walk out their doors with home decor, but your purchase goes to someone who needs help.
Q: If you could do another job for a day within your city, what would it be?
A: If I had the opportunity to step into another role for a day, I’d choose to be a school principal. It reminds me of a quote from “Finding Nemo”: “Just keep swimming.” School principals play a vital role in shaping young minds and ensuring they keep moving forward, despite the challenges. It’s a job filled with both challenges and rewards, much like life itself.
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