With a growing list of states teetering on the edge of fiscal calamity, good governance and long-term thinking are frequent casualties. Elected officials and department heads are walking into crises not of their making, and generally find the public blaming them in short order. It makes me wonder: Who would want these jobs? Could a willing candidate possibly understand how challenging both the reality and politics of the public sector can be?
The time-frame in which this occurs today reminds me of that old joke about the three envelopes left by the outgoing official for the new guy. They are numbered, to be opened in sequence as crises arise. The first piece of advice: Blame your predecessor. The second: Blame the media. The third: Take out three envelopes.
In the past, for those of us who have spent substantial time in public life, the benefits of those first two envelopes usually lasted long enough to get at least a few significant things done. But today, it's not uncommon for public officials to reach the third envelope before the administration's first year is out.
This places increasing pressure on officials not only to make it through the first twelve months of inevitable budget meltdown and legislative confrontation, but also to build a framework for future decision-making. This task may fall first to the chief executive, but it must be emulated consistently by departmental leaders, down through departments and outward to external constituencies.
A failure to provide a multiyear context for these perennial conflicts can weaken an administration irreparably; with each budget battle repeating the same patterns, leaving department heads locked in a downward spiral of bickering, myopia and old-fashioned backside covering. After seeing too many of these situations play out, I asked a veteran of many state budget battles what strategies he believed could set in motion a more constructive conflict. He offered some observations which seemed pretty obvious to me, until on reflection I realized how rarely they are practiced.
These strategies add up to three core elements. First, confront the reality of the situation and plan for responsible budgeting. Second, communicate clearly, often and widely the budget reality and the resultant strategy for meeting it. Third, steer clear of broadside attacks and instead use documented, factual examples of inequities, inefficiencies and unusual spending practices to engage and persuade the public that leaders must address them.
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