A Q&A With New Civic Federation President Joe Ferguson

January 16, 2024

The Civic Federation is pleased to share that Joe Ferguson, the Federation’s new president, officially joined the staff this week. Ferguson served as City of Chicago inspector general from 2009 to 2021. Prior to that, he spent 15 years with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. He brings a wealth of experience and expertise when it comes to government transparency, efficiency and effectiveness, and the Federation looks forward to his leadership as we enter our 130th year and exciting next chapter. 

In this interview, Ferguson shares what induced him to join the Civic Federation, his favorite Chicago haunts and much more. Learn more about his hiring and background here.


What made you want to lead the Civic Federation?

My first reaction to outreach soliciting my interest in applying for the position was that the mission of the organization dating back to its founding 130 years ago was closely aligned with that of government oversight bodies like the Chicago Office of Inspector General (Chicago OIG), which I was fortunate enough to lead for 12 years, spanning three mayors. Effectiveness, efficiency and integrity are the express touchstones for the work of both organizations. And I was familiar with the work of the Civic Federation from three avenues: (1) the large, ever-expanding body of work of the outstanding staff of the Civic Federation under Laurence Msall that included not only gold standard governmental fiscal and pension analysis, but also projects on government redundancy and opportunities for improved and efficient delivery of public services needed for a thriving economy and community; (2) my periodic conversations with Laurence on the fiscal and pension issues; and (3) a decade-long working relationship with former Civic Federation Vice-President and Director of Research Lise Valentine, who left the Federation to sign on as deputy inspector general at Chicago OIG where we developed one of the nation's leading and award-winning municipal audit and program oversight units. 

Recent work in both the non-profit and academia sectors on municipal governance structures and Chicago's unique status as the only major city in the country to function without a municipal constitution brought me into contact with the history of the Civic Federation's founding, during which it spearheaded the last major effort to reform Chicago's governance structure. That history exposed me to the Civic Federation's unique ability to bring together often competing constituent groups from business, labor and civic, and social non-profit spheres in the collective cause of government reform. The more I explored, the more I encountered the vision and work of its founding generation reflected in its work today. The alignment of history, priorities and work made the idea of working for the Federation a compelling and synergistic prospect. The rest was the work of the Selection Committee under the leadership of Barbara Stewart during a period of extended grieving and soul-searching following the sudden passing of Laurence Msall.  


What do you enjoy most (so far!) about being a part of the Civic Federation?

In the national inspector general community there was a saying that if you want a friend, get a dog. What has already brought great uplift is the passion and positivity of the Board constituted of regional leaders from diverse constituent sectors who despite all of the government challenges we face, many chronic and pernicious, are enthusiastically committed to fostering a brighter future through better, standard-based governance. I have suddenly found myself among friends! (My dog is already suspicious and asking questions.)


What's your favorite Chicago hidden gem?

So many possibilities. First things that come to mind at the moment — Powell's Books on 57th Street and the front table at the Seminary Coop Bookstore, both in Hyde Park, and The Drifter — the Prohibition era speakeasy nestled in the basement of the Green Door Tavern in River North.


What's a project you're working on right now?

I have had the privilege of a long-running secondary, professional track of teaching and writing on topics in national security and civil rights law at Loyola University Law School and, of more recent minting, public policy focusing on governance and government oversight at the University of Chicago Harris School. Recently I’ve been doing a deep dive into the history of the Espionage Act, which after a long period of relative quiescence has been used more expansively and routinely over the last 20 years.  


What's something about you that's not included in your bio? 

I am a longtime member of a fantasy baseball league of mostly former federal prosecutors now in high stations in the legal community. (The league commissioner is the former lead prosecutor of the Rod Blagojevich case and the winner routinely is the lead prosecutor director of the Department of Justice's Enron Task Force.). Shading at the margin is just not a possibility in a community of sticklers for the rules.