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Daniel Posthumus chats with alum Emily Uselton

After receiving her undergraduate degree at Xavier University, Emily Uselton began her career working in the private sector in public accounting. However, feeling the desire to work in public service, Ms. Uselton later obtained a Masters in Public Policy degree from the College of William & Mary, and moved on to work as an analyst in the City of Norfolk’s Office of Budget and Strategic Planning. She, in just the span of a few years, worked her way up to become the office’s Budget and Policy Manager.  Her primary role is to direct the drafting of Norfolk’s budget, coordinating with the various agencies of the city government to allocate the expected revenue for each fiscal year.      

Communication is a key aspect of Ms. Uselton’s role in city government. She manages a team of seven analysts, who work on the details of the fiscal year’s budget. In addition to coordinating with these analysts, she has to communicate with members of the city council, the city manager, and heads of the city’s agencies. Ms. Uselton also often utilizes her background in finance and public accounting. 

The most interesting aspect of Ms. Uselton’s job to me is the balancing of interests between the city agencies in accordance with the budget. We spoke about the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic and its resultant economic crisis has had on Norfolk’s financial status. Interestingly, much of the city’s revenue is derived from real estate taxes—which have not suffered because of COVID-19. That being said, the budget did take a significant hit, which had to be accounted for in the budget. Choosing and communicating to the agencies that have to lose funding is delicate, but necessary work, that I find fascinating.

Also interesting is the management of politics. Ms. Uselton spoke about how Norfolk is run using a city manager style of government—so that an appointed official (more in the mold of a technocrat) is responsible for much of the day-to-day city management. She preferred this style of government, feeling that it allowed for less politics and partisanship. In fact, an ambivalence towards partisan politics is one of the major reasons why she chose local government (characterized less by gridlock) rather than federal, or even state, work.

As someone most interested in federal policymaking, I found Ms. Uselton’s insights into the relationship between the federal government and her work in local politics—especially in the COVID-19 pandemic—very interesting. She spoke about the effect of the CARES act and the local aid associated with it. As she pointed out, local aid—which was such a hotly debated topic in the Congressional stimulus negotiations—was more ineffectual than it could have been because of the timeframe in which Congress had allowed cities to utilize the aid.

Ms. Uselton’s number one piece of advice was to not over-plan. She spoke about the need to be flexible and seek opportunities whenever and wherever they may present themselves—and to not reject opportunities out of hand simply because they do not fit into a “plan.”