[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

The Eight Traits of Highly Successful Public Officials

Got this from another mailing list. Some food for thought.  There are
members of this list who are already public officials. Others might want
to become, later. They might benefit. 

Crucial lesson: Time is short. Life is short. Be fully prepared in every
way for each day when you are in public office. In advance. Learn also the
power of good communication. Written and Oral.


Subject: The Eight Traits of Highly Successful  Public Officials

This article was published in THE HILL on May 6, 1998.  For more
information, please visit http://YouWon-NowWhat.com

By Taegan D. Goddard and Christopher Riback

Washington D.C. tourists eager to visit our best symbols of American
democracy would be well advised to skip the Washington Monument, bypass the
Lincoln Memorial, and head straight to the office of newly-elected
Congresswoman Mary Bono. As odd as it sounds - and as uncomfortable as it
must be for the many Hill staffers who work years for a shot to succeed
their bosses - Bono's victory illustrates the way our system was designed
more than two centuries ago.

What makes Bono, who has not worked a day in government, qualified to hold
such high public office?  Everything.  Our democracy was designed to allow
people from all walks of life the chance to serve a stint in public office,
and then return to their private lives. This turnover of government
officials brings vitality and freshness. Few Americans want a permanent

But there is, of course, downside. Lots of it. Though we elect and appoint
officials to government who have little relevant experience -- Robert Reich
went from managing half the time of one secretary to more than 18,000
employees and a $35 billion budget when he moved from Harvard professor to
U.S. Labor Secretary -- we expect government to run well.  With Capitol Hill
offices facing turnover every two years, this "government of novices" is a
perpetual problem.  The same is true for each staff aide that comes to town
for a stint in government.

There is no manual for Mary Bono, members of Congress or the thousands of
staffers on Capitol Hill. When trouble starts, there's no 800- number for
them to call. But answers can come from those who have previously served. We
spent the last two years canvassing the country, talking to dozens of public
servants and uncovering what might be called "The Eight Traits of
Highly-Successful Public Officials."  New public servants must:

* Recognize government is not a business.

This concept, of course, runs contrary to nearly everything said, written or
thought about government today.  Officials at all levels of government and
from both major political parties cloak themselves in this Holy Grail of
political theory. Yet from the idea that citizens are much more than
government's customers (they are it's owners) to the need for openness,
government is not a business.  Forcing government managers into private
sector thinking usually causes more problems than it solves.

* Rethink government's main purpose.

If a government function can be run like a business, maybe it should be one.
Many new public officials find themselves heading agencies where the
day-to-day work goes beyond what they expected.  With management teams swept
in and out over the years, most agencies perform tasks they should not. Some
government functions are more appropriate for the private sector, some
overlap with other agencies and some are simply no longer relevant.  By
using up time and energy, these excesses keep the officials from doing their
best job.

* Know what they want to accomplish.

Little could sound more obvious. After all, who would run for office or
accept appointment to an important government position without having a
clear idea of what to achieve or how government should perform?  Yet stop a
random congressman in the halls of the Capitol and too often you'll find
they lack what President George Bush called "the vision thing."

* Change the old guard, the old culture - or both.

Putting one's stamp on a government agency - making it one's own - is never
easy.  Staff positions must be filled with people who share similar goals,
even when too few vacancies are available. And new positions are difficult
to create. The pay typically runs lower than comparable private sector jobs;
and new public officials - lacking any similar experience - must negotiate
the political appointments minefield, especially when higher-ups put on
pressure to take their unqualified cousin for that last vacancy.

* Take control of the bureaucracy.

Empowering bureaucrats is today's conventional wisdom in making government
work.  It is also wrong.  Instead, top new public officials must learn to
empower themselves.  They must liberate themselves from the multiple layers
of bureaucracy and arcane rules that block their ability to take control of
their agency.

The permanent bureaucracy, originally designed to prevent abuse, now
insulates public officials from the people so that empowering bureaucrats
actually decreases government's accountability. The elected or appointed
public manager is most directly accountable to the citizens and, as a
result, should have the most responsibility.

* Juggle many balls at once.

If there is one supreme lesson of which nearly every public official wishes
he or she had been reminded before taking office, it's that time is short,
and much of their time is taken by juggling crises. The crises can develop
slowly, like a recession that decreases government revenues; or they can
appear out of nowhere, like a scandal plastered on the front page of the
morning newspaper. But make no mistake - they will come.

* Manage their message.

A government official's communication skills are frequently overlooked.
They're not taught in public administration programs or business schools,
nor are they mentioned in the so-called management books. Yet regularly they
make the difference between success and failure in public sector
initiatives.  If public officials do not manage their message, it will be
managed for them.

* Seek feedback from citizens.

American democracy, like most democracies worldwide, has evolved into a
system called "representative government," which, in plain language, means,
"Elect me. I know better." But times have changed.  No longer is it
sufficient to take office and check back four years later to see if you've
done a good job.

Technology has changed government.  Feedback is so easy to get, from
constantly whirring fax machines to the lightening-quick responses of
e-mail, that no public official can ignore it. They have a responsibility
not just to put information out but to get input in return.

This does not mean that members of Congress should change voting positions
with every new e-mail they receive. Without a core set of beliefs, any
public official is worthless.  It does mean, however, the concept of
representative democracy has evolved, and officials ignore a willing public
at great risk.

Taegan D. Goddard and Chris Riback are co-authors of the book "YOU WON - NOW
WHAT? How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White
House" (Scribner, March 1998).

For more information on YOU WON - NOW WHAT? please visit our web site: