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By: Don D. Berglund
The winner of a local or state election has the best chance of later being re-elected if he/she performs well during one particularly critical period of time. That is the transition period, or the time between victory on election day and the end of the first few weeks of the new administration.
It is difficult for anyone who has not run for elected office and won to appreciate what it feels like as the dust is settling after an election. Months of hard work campaigning, raising money, and stumping with constituents is finally over. The rigors of elected office lie somewhere vaguely ahead.
It is a very heady feeling for the victor, who is naturally ecstatic about winning. The typical reaction is to conclude that all effort was worth it and paid off in victory. Often there is a feeling of invulnerability, too. It is easy for the winner of an election to assume that victory is a validation of special ideas, skill, talent, or charisma. A certain sense of self-importance is hard to avoid. “Next step, the Presidency!” the winner’s mind races ahead, ready to take on the world.
No victor, however, has more than a short time before reality hits and it is actually time to take office — a few months at most. There is much to do: hire staff, interview consultants, set schedules and shore up agendas. “Hit the ground running, be ready to serve your first day in office” are typical injunctions running through the winner’s mind. But this is where many newly elected officials miss the proverbial boat.
They focus too much on internal scripts and dialogues. They overlook a set of important would-be allies, or potential troublemakers: the many civil servants who will continue on their jobs when the new administration takes over.
What the newly elected often do not realize is how much anxiety there is among these highly essential embedded employees. Depending on the complexity of the administration, hundreds of fretful, fearful people may be asking themselves: “Am I going to lose my job?” “Am I going to lose my benefits?” “Will my duties or my benefits be drastically reduced?” It takes only a few unsettled entrenched employees to spread unfortunate rumors about “the newcomer.” What was supposed to be a seamless transition to a new administration can turn into a rough patch right at the start.
As the new public administrator is assuming office, and even before, he/she needs to address the concerns of civil servants who should be enlisted for their support. The single biggest mistake that newly elected officials make is this: not taking seriously enough the feelings of the existing administration workforce during the transition time.
Fear can lead to negative perceptions about the new administrator. The perceptions of workers may have little or nothing to do with the performance or potential of a new public administrator. Opinions can and do form and rapidly circulate throughout the workplace. This is a somewhat natural reaction to uncertainty during any transition time.
If not dealt with immediately, even before taking office, incipient negativity among workers can have far-reaching results for the new administration. More or less harmless rumors can grow more ugly. They can migrate outside the workplace as employees talk to friends at the grocery store, recreation events, after church, and on their cell phones. The new office holder can find himself/herself losing the trust of his employees before even starting out on the job. And the public trust may be compromised as well.
Faced with the prospect of having to spend significant time trying to win back lost trust, the new office holder needs to address and adjust people’s perceptions right from the onset, as soon as the office is won.
Fortunately, the new public administrator can avoid most early problems and get off on the right foot simply by realizing the dynamics at work here and having a plan in place that helps solidify support from employees. Planning trumps troubleshooting. Enlisting support develops trust.
Follow these steps to develop trust:
1. Articulate and explain your position.
2. Ask your employees lots of questions, like these:
Asking these questions will make employees feel that they, and their work, are important to you. They will see that their new leader trusts them enough to involve them in the decision-making process as well as to share thoughts and concerns with them.
3. Work on getting employees to open up and share information.
This may not be easy. At first, many are likely to be guarded in their responses. Probably some will fear that what they say might be used against them. Others may be anxious that their input will simply not be accepted or even taken seriously. On the other hand, be wary of those who make it a point to tell you how much they have done and how valuable their accomplishments are. These may be the very ones who have not been pulling their weight on the job.
In any case, stating your goals, laying out your expectations of employees, and soliciting their input are all essential parts of the new executive’s workload during the transition period. Becoming a good manager of people starts with developing trust by initiating meaningful communication and thereby showing you are worthy of trust.
Striving for Incremental Improvements
The transition period offers challenges that last well into the first few weeks of the new administration. Once in office, the new executive has a natural tendency to make wholesale changes in order to satisfy their political supporters and to make good on campaign promises. However, doing so can be risky. Rather than jumping in and making these changes, the new leader should ask the following questions:
-Am I sure this change is needed?
-Will this change really help us perform better?
Asking questions up front can help avoid making mistakes to be regretted later.
Take as an example a newly elected official who campaigned on a platform of cutting expenses. He/she may tend to strive too strongly for efficiency and therefore demand lowering of costs across the board. But it is possible that cost-cutting measures implemented without asking enough questions beforehand could end up incurring more cost in the long run.
Let us consider the 2008 case of nearby Putnam County, Fl. race for School District Superintendent.
The new Superintendent was an intelligent man who wanted to do the right thing. Promising to cut costs, he and his staff surveyed the budget in his early weeks in office. They noticed that many of the departments within the school district had two copy machines. Without asking questions, and in order to demonstrate to taxpayers the administration’s willingness to cut costs, the superintendent decreed that there be only one copier per department, not two. The “extra” copiers were sold, with the proceeds going back into the county treasury.
However, after the fact, it turned out there was indeed a reason for two copiers: the departments needed them. The volume of work was so great that one copier simply could not handle it. Staff members ended up walking off to search for another copy machine when the only one available was already in use. People were wasting time that did not need to be wasted and not accomplishing the task intended. Finally, the school district had to buy more copiers in order to meet demand, and the cost was greater than the amount of money gained from the sale of the “surplus” copiers earlier.
The lesson here is clear: “Think long term not simply short term, ask relevant questions, and strive for an improvement rather than a major change.” It is a lesson plan that all newly elected public officials who are seeking to navigate a transition into office, to gain control of people’s perceptions, and to develop trust would do well to follow.
The transition period, as we have seen, is a critical period for a newly elected leader in state and local government. If not negotiated correctly, the transition to elected office can be a time when serious problems arise, problems that can linger even to the point where later elections are affected.
During transition period, as an elected official, you and your staff must spend significant time collaborating with pre-existing employees. Asking questions of the employees, assuring them of your support, soliciting their support, and taking the steps needed to develop trust as early as possible are all keys to a successful transition period.
Once in office, strive for realistic, achievable, well thought out improvements. Do not push for sweeping, wholesale change. Your incremental accomplishments will lead to a successful beginning for your new administration, and help to gain the necessary trust from the public for a successful reelection effort later.
Developing the trust of the employees who support you is an essential part of the new executive’s job during the transition period. Maintaining that trust throughout your term of office is the necessary challenge for success, as best exemplified perhaps in re-election. If you can demonstrate that you are a good, capable manager of people in near term, you are more likely to gain the public’s trust in the long term.
Don D. Berglund is Associate Professor and Director, of the Public Administration Program at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fl. His teaching and research interests are in the areas of state and local government, immigration reform, and organization behavior.