Hello From the Other Side (…of the Politics Administration Dichotomy)

Posted on August 3, 2022

hello from the other side
Today’s Morning Buzz is by Kirsten Wyatt, a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, and the ELGL co-founder. Connect with Kirsten on LinkedIn and Twitter. And, join her new project, the Digital Service Network!

LinkedIn reminded me that it has been a year since I was sworn in to elected office as a school board member. Often over the past year, I have reflected on what it feels like to be on the politics side of the politics/administration dichotomy after a career on the administration side, and what lessons local government leaders can learn from these reflections. Here are some of my observations:

Newly elected officials do not live and breathe the work like you do

My first observation from the past year is how little I know about the intricacies of public school administration, because my professional background is not in the field and I do not do the work every day. When I was elected, I had spent the prior three years on the school district’s budget committee, and so I thought I was starting my term with a solid baseline of school district knowledge. Plus, I assumed that my background in the public sector gave me additional understanding.

Newly elected officials will join your governing board with great intentions and a willingness to learn, but that’s vastly different than the day-to-day work you do, the conferences and trainings you’ve attended, and the career-spanning learning you’ve amassed.

During my local government career, I was guilty of assuming that when people ran for office and were elected, they had the same passion for local government information, learning, and content as I did. My guess is that if you’re reading this Morning Buzz and are involved with ELGL, you pride yourself on your professional development and learning – that you live and breathe local government like I did (and do!).

It’s important to keep this in mind, so you can onboard newly elected officials with a laser focus on how new all of the information is, and with the understanding that you may need to provide more context and background than you realize.

This is also especially important as elections and campaigning becomes more political and polarized, even in non-partisan races; the campaign trail is often very disconnected from the actual issues the governing board will address.

The two main issues from my campaign – COVID masking and critical race theory – are not actual issues addressed by a local school board.

Acronym fatigue is real

I can think of many ELGL articles, podcasts, webinars, and conference sessions where the message to stop using acronyms has been stressed. But I also need to reiterate it here: stop using acronyms. Similar to the first observation, your newly elected officials aren’t up on the jargon and peppering sentences with acronyms commonly used in your field or in public administration in general just causes confusion.

As a first step when onboarding newly elected officials, do a careful proofread of all materials and presentations to get rid of acronyms and jargon, and if you do use them, clearly define them early and often.

Public meetings feel different

I’ve sat through my fair share of contentious public meetings. Meetings that run into the late night, with angry people, with cheering and chanting, with crying, with amateur poets, with barbershop quartets, with protest signs, with youth groups, with animals – I thought I had seen it all and I could take my seat on the dais with comfort and ease given these experiences.

A third observation is that public meetings just feel different and more emotional when you’re attending them as an elected official. As administrators we become desensitized in challenging public meetings with the understanding that it’s part of the job. We have conferences and events where we can share our experiences and commiserate.

Sitting on the dais as an elected representative makes the interactions feel more pointed. If administrators are hardened, then elected officials are softened by the experience of hearing from the people who elected them and show up to meetings with the expectation that their time spent in the meeting is to talk to their elected officials.

Care and consideration should be given to newly elected officials about how to comport themselves in a public meeting. A run-through of how meetings are run, how to use the microphones, and voting systems, how the AV system works, and when people are on camera should all be part of training before the first meeting. And, check on your elected officials during the most contentious or angry meetings. Call for a five minute break, have snacks and coffee in a back room, and make sure they’re doing ok on the hot seat.

Impartiality is great… in theory

A core aspect of the politics/administration dichotomy is separating the administration of government from the politics of it. The need for impartiality and nonpartisanship is lodged in the brains of anyone working for local government as we strive for democratic accountability.

But, a fourth observation is that impartiality is great in theory, but in practice, elected officials also need perspective. An analogy is being asked for the restaurant choices for lunch and listing them out to a friend, while knowing that the local cheesesteak restaurant in town has horrible health standards. And then when your friend says “cheesesteaks sound great,” not mentioning this glaring fact, and you both get food poisoning.

It’s really important to maintain impartiality, and include all information so you provide a well-rounded view. But it’s also important to offer up important perspectives that decision makers need to know to make the right decision – not just a decision. With tact, I think this can be done in a way that preserves impartiality while still affirming to the elected official that you have their back and aren’t trying to unduly influence their decision making.

Share your sources

My last observation is to share the sources and information that you find helpful with your elected officials. If you read ELGL.org articles regularly and find something of interest – share it with them. I would never turn down the chance to hear or read something that one of our district employees finds interesting or helpful. Similar to the first observation, your elected officials are not steeped in the information like you are.

When you find helpful resources, share them and help connect them with thought leaders to grow their networks. Do not just assume that the cities or counties or school board associations will provide these networks and resources.

Sharing out your network and resources will help your elected officials grow their knowledge and understanding of the issues they will work with you on or will address during their term.

Those are a few of my initial observations from my first year in elected office. I would love to hear any observations you have, regardless of what side of the politics/administration dichotomy you’re on! Tweet at me at @kowyatt or share on LinkedIn!

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