Spring is often filled with elections. There’s an old saying which states it only takes one new elected official to change the complexion and focus of the governing body. Those staff members who partner with elected officials in shaping communities, may find the experience both incredibly exhilarating and downright frustrating, all in the same day!
Let me remind you of the three maxims that pertain to government : First, the length of a public meeting by the governing body is in inverse proportion to the length of the agenda – the longer the agenda the shorter the meeting and the shorter the agenda the longer the meeting; Second, the length of the discussion by the governing body is in inverse proportion to the dollar amount of the agenda item being considered for adoption – the larger the dollar amount the shorter the discussion and the smaller the dollar amount the longer the discussion; and Third, always remember, the first rule after being elected is to be re-elected and a politician is re-elected for saying yes to constituents instead of no.
Before I started my professional career in local government management, where I served for 15 years and prior to establishing the Mejorando Group in 2002, my first internship was with Mayor Terry Goddard of Phoenix, Arizona. I learned a great deal as a 23 year-old, that helped me immensely in partnering with elected officials during my career in city management and as a consultant. As a result of working in and for local government for almost thirty years, I want to share my Four Answers on How to Succeed at the Politics of Government
1) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – but it’s not just overloading elected officials with tons of data and meeting after meeting. Instead convert all those numbers, most of which are outputs, into a story. By and large, elected officials are not number, but are people-centric and would prefer to find out about operational challenges, policy matters and budgetary constraints in a story format that always includes options. Remember for elected officials the first option is not to do anything. If you give elected officials only one option, they often resent it and never forget it, Abide by the adage that “less is more.” Less means information is presented concisely and in such a way that helps the elected official make better decisions.
2) Be a Credible Advisor – most elected officials in the U.S. are part-time and have lives outside their role as a City Councilperson or County Commissioner. Typically, they are reluctant to make a public announcement about those subjects that confuse them or those where they’re not sure what to do. Consequently, they expect staff members, top to bottom, to have empathy for them even when they often don’t reciprocate. Regardless of your role in government, when you signed up as a paid professional, you accepted that democracy was messy and sometimes baffling. It’s your responsibility to provide solid and professional advice, to anticipate what elected officials may not understand and provide counsel and advice in such a way they can utilize it. Help them make good decisions and they often remember it, and will contact you more and more for that counsel. Words to live by – you’re not the audience for your message. While in city management, I thought the City Council was pregnant, they didn’t know it and it was my job to induce labor. In other words, I had to help them think these ideas I was presenting were good and actually theirs, so they would join in and support them It’s not about being manipulative but recognizing the dimensions of your ever-changing role.
3) Demonstrate Political Acumen. Pride and poise often collide when politicians sometimes make decisions that cause you to scratch your head. Don’t become too distraught when elected officials make a decision you don’t support. Part of being a professional means you understand very well your role and appreciate that elected officials are accountable to the voting public. In my consulting practice, I gain valuable insight not in how a group agrees, but how they disagree. Is it cordial and collegial or not?
4) Stay in your Lane. It may be tempting when an elected official seeks you out and wants to take you into his/her confidence and possibly make promises if you do…but this is like playing with matches. You do so at your own risk. Politicians place an extremely high value on loyalty and can sometimes want staff to teeter on that fine line. Handle those encounters with tact and diplomacy.