This guest blog is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, the Assistant to the Town Manager in Hudson, Colorado. Read Matt’s writing about understanding privilege, understanding identity, and impressing in meetings.
As local government professionals, many of us have in our codes of ethics to remain as apolitical as possible, to not compromise the trust our citizens have with us regardless of their political leanings.
With the 2020 Presidential Primaries underway, it’s a safe bet that the partisan politics will only grow more intense and contentious in the coming months and year, adding the pressure of the importance to maintain that public trust, as well as to “choose a side”.
A few examples I’ve recently experienced:
- I shared some historical factoids about Jeffersonian Democracy from 200+ years ago. Co-workers ended up applying it to modern politics and started debating each other.
- I assisted hiring a new deputy marshal by being a part of a roleplay exercise. Was put on the spot by someone mentioning I could play up a certain political stereotype easily given my past experience.
- I discussed marketing strategies with my Rec Committee, and grounded expectations by mentioning we won’t be advertising on CNN and Fox (including a left-leaning and right-leaning news source to be neutral). One member took the moment to disparage the news source they disagreed with.
Be Content in our Role
I’ve been a Field Organizer for a political campaign, leading canvassing, phonebanking, voter registration, etc. It was a great experience, an exercise in democracy for me. I learned skills I still utilize in my local government career.
However, I find my current work just as much of an exercise in democracy. I dabble in being an analyst, project manager, communications specialist, and recreation coordinator.
Each role has a degree of engaging citizens, making decisions, implementing change to my community. The main difference is as a Field Organizer I waived around my political preference openly, now I waive around a citizen survey we took, or a research paper I completed, or other technical information when working with people.
Regardless of our role within local government, the first step through navigating the partisan politics is to believe in our role, to find beauty in what we do and be content. This will stave off the temptation to make that political public comment, to make that partisan online post.
You Don’t Have to Engage
Being happy with our role in democracy will get us far, but that won’t stop people from coming straight to us with comments and questions. It won’t stop someone from asking, “What do you think of X politician?” and “How about Y controversial issue?” The easiest way to navigate through those moments is to not jump into them in the first place.
- “I prefer to keep that to myself.”
- “As a [insert role here] of [insert city/town/county/agency here], it’s not my role to weigh in on that.”
- “…” Silence.
During the roleplay example above, I just changed the conversation. “Do you have the sheet with the candidates’ names on them?”
Control the Context
Some issues can fall into more of a grey area, especially political issues that relate to our line of work. We are government employees after all, and there is overlap.
Police must to a degree deal with debates on law enforcement controversies, employees in an environmental position or agency must contend with relevant debates on climate change.
We can take the extra few seconds, the extra phrase or sentence to establish a professional, non-partisan context first.
- “As a [insert role] here, I have found that [insert direct experience here].”
- “Let me provide you the pros and cons of each option/position/proposal as per the work I’ve been doing.”
- “Well, my role is to [establish responsibilities here], it is [insert elected officials here] who can take the staff recommendations or not based on what they feel is right for the community.”
When the rec committee member spoke up against a particular news source, I pivoted back and re-established the context by saying, “And of course we won’t be doing any tv advertisement since it’s beyond our budget. These are our options we’re looking at for our marketing…”
Discipline in the Face of Adversity
It is my belief that getting offended is natural. We all have our pressure points, all have values that the world will rub up against the wrong way, all have things we can barely stand from small pet peeves to deeper, spiritual boundaries.
For the sake of an example, let’s say we feel strongly that [ducks should wear pants] (feel free to think of a less silly example).
We think it is a real problem that [ducks don’t wear pants], and we lose sleep over it. Now imagine a citizen, or coworker coming up and saying, “Gosh, I’m so glad [ducks don’t wear pants]. Anyone who thinks [duck should wear pants] is ignorant.”
We might get a ‘look’ on our face. We might groan or roll our eyes, or in some other knee-jerk-reaction-way state what we’re thinking even if we don’t spell it out word for word.
Whether it’s exposing ourselves enough to what we disagree with so it’s not shocking when it comes up, or meditating in the mornings and evenings, or simply practicing having a good poker face, that discipline will be there when contentment, disengagement, and context aren’t enough.
When my co-workers began debating after my Jefferson-related talk, I used my personal discipline strategy and just laughed it off and cracked a joke.
Now Do Good Work
I am no longer a Field Organizer supporting a specific political candidate. I am in a position to propose positive change through citizen outreach and empirical research.
We can do good work in our respective fields, in our respective communities, to make our country a better place in our own way. We can trust that there are many, many other professionals, advocates, and everyday citizens doing the same as well, each of us working towards a better whole.
Find our niche. Believe in what we can do. Implement it.