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The Elected Official’s Secret Weapon

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Malone
February 2, 2021

It must be difficult to be an elected official. Politicians come into office riding a platform of promises to improve life for the citizens that elect them. Whether it be through improved education, healthcare, public safety or an economic stimulus for large and small businesses, they arrive with numerous proposals to which they have committed their professional and personal reputation. There are programs to initiate and efficiencies to be had.

Most of the time our politicians are just local folks trying to make a difference. Thousands of opportunities exist in our towns, cities, counties and states to serve in elected office and many of these candidates dip into their own pockets to finance their campaigns. It’s easy to imagine the old days where office seekers sat around the kitchen table licking stamps and stuffing envelopes. Today, they spend hours upon hours emailing potential supporters and interest groups, shaking hands (pre-pandemic) and showing up at various civic events (socially distanced, of course).

Other times citizens seeking public office aspire to positions at the national level. They may pursue any one of the 542 available positions in U.S. Representatives, including four delegates to the House of Representatives from United States territories and the District of Columbia, or the one Resident Commissioner from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Oh yeah, there’s the President and Vice-President lest we forget.

Citizens seek elected office for many reasons, but once they’re in place their behavior is worth observing. The legendary Yale professor David Mayhew, in his book, The Electoral Connection, argued that Congressional office holders use rational choice theory as the foundation of their behavior once in office. In layman’s terms, political figures want to get re-elected. And I think we can safely say that there’s also a number of politicians out there who just want to make a positive difference for their communities. Some likely want to do both.

When attempting to achieve their goals, elected officials have much in common. Whether they pursue re-election or legislative/programmatic goals, they draw on any number of donors or professional contacts to reach success. They may have professional staff and appointees that they bring to bear coupled with their own expertise. All good. But what far too many of these office-holders have in common is their failure to tap into the best resource they have for success—be it a new county road, passing an economics legislation or simply winning another term. This resource is their civil servants.

With such a robust civil service in place at local, state and national levels, why wouldn’t our elected officials and their appointees depend more heavily on the amazing public servants at their beck and call? Civil servants are the recognized experts in the delivery of public goods and services to our citizens. Unlike elected officials whose terms may run for only a couple of years, civil servants, through merit-based performance, can be in place for an entire career. They have a robust understanding of intergovernmental complexity along with a sense of history as to how initiatives had been delivered in the past, what worked and what didn’t. This can prove to be extraordinarily beneficial to any elected official’s agenda, if they take the time to listen.

So, the message to the newly elected official or their political appointee?

  1. Recognize what you have. Your #1 best chance for achieving your policy goals is through the strength of the public servants that surround you. They are as valuable to you as any number of advisors or appointees on your personal staff.

  2. Trust them. Trust their expertise and trust their judgment. They are the experts. They’ve probably been doing their work for far longer than you have, and they know the ins and outs of how to make things happen in government.

  3. Assume noble intent. Public servants are there to attend to the citizens of their communities. They are fueled by public service motivation. They work the roadsides, deliver vaccinations and provide safety for all of us.

  4. Consider yourself lucky. Not only do you get to hold a trusted office representing the citizens of your jurisdiction, but you also get to work with an amazing team of professionals who care nothing more than how to best provide for our nation’s citizens, many that voted for you.

  5. Tell them thank you, often. They’ll still be here when you leave, doing the work, accepting the blame (warranted or not) and rarely getting recognized for their value. They toil in obscurity in villages, towns, cities, counties, states and federal agencies all across this country.

As I stated earlier, it must be difficult to be an elected official. But it doesn’t have to be!

Author: Patrick Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University. He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service. His new co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) will be released in Spring 2021.

E-mail: [email protected]
Twitter: @DrPatrickMalone

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