Reading the profiles of Governing’s 2016 Public Officials of the Year, I was reminded of a phrase that Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, used at one of our recent events: “horses for courses.” Foye was employing the racetrack metaphor to describe how he decides which projects should use a public-private-partnership approach instead of traditional financing. The same idea applies to public officials: Different people are suited to different situations.
“Different” is certainly an apt description of today’s public arena, and of the qualities of the men and women we’re honoring. Among the group of eight, I see some common traits that reflect the evolution of politics and management in state and local government, such as moderation, collaboration and a focus on smart financial management. Most Americans are political moderates who want their public officials to collaborate and get things done. Our honorees’ accomplishments embody that, as does their focus on getting good value for the taxpayer’s money. At the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, for example, CEO Keith Parker, whose agency was facing a predicted $33 million deficit when he took over, finished his first year with a $9 million surplus. And in Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock has produced more than $15 million in savings from an employee-led innovation program he put in place.
There’s a fourth trait that is common among our honorees: a focus on solid, measurable results. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker got legislation passed that resulted in opioid prescriptions declining by 25 percent last year, double the decline nationally. And Utah’s budget director, Kristen Cox, led changes in her state’s crime lab that resulted in cases being processed 66 percent faster.
Despite the tumultuousness of our politics at the national level, the public seems to know something about the people who lead their state and local governments. In survey after survey over decades, solid majorities have continued to express a level of trust and confidence in states and localities that they don’t feel for federal institutions.
That trust is being earned every day across the country. I travel a great deal, meeting and talking with public officials, and I can tell you that while the people we are honoring this year are exceptional, they are not the exception. They represent thousands of solid, professional public servants making sure that, despite all of our problems and conflicts, our governments work.