Leading in Distrustful Times

At a time when government is held in low esteem, public service needs people with the qualities that Canada's Reg Alcock had in abundance.
November 2, 2011 AT 11:00 AM
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

Every month or so, Reg Alcock and I were part of a conference call on public issues with roughly 20 others, but the last time we were actually together we shared a train from downtown Chicago to O'Hare airport. His enthusiasm -- he had very infectious enthusiasms -- was, as always, about the need to improve the perception of public service. He argued that the times were ripe if the right energy, organization and messages could be focused on the problem. Reg planned to write a book to help get things started.

I thus read his Management Insights column, "Learning to Appreciate Public Servants," as an introduction to what would grow to be an influential and entertaining conversation.

Reg, who served as a member of Parliament and as president of the Treasury Board of Canada, died recently of the kind of unexpected but always possible heart attack that too often strikes down those fighting diabetes. We will miss his articles and his book, but we would do well to try to carry out their leadership agenda.

I think he was clearly right about the dangers of eroding trust in public leaders and public service. When I got started in government in the 1960s, Gallup polls consistently showed that something above 80 percent of the public felt that government leaders made the right choices "most of the time." Today, only a little over 10 percent report that level of trust.

Part of the erosion of trust is a side effect of negative political advertising. Going negative clearly works. Given that it does, why don't we see Burger King going negative on McDonald's? The reason is that the private sector knows that you don't "kill the category." Negative ads about McDonald's soon would kill Burger King as well.

In politics, going negative doesn't kill the category. But it does make it much harder to be successful. When government is seen as incompetent and illegitimate, governance suffers. To get the government and governance we need, we must attract many of the best from every generation into public service.

Fundamentally, we need public servants with the strengths that Reg had in great abundance—compassion, intelligence, courage and enthusiasm:

Reg Alcock
Reg Alcock, 1948-2011

Compassion. Reg cared about people, and especially about those who needed some help. While he respected the "destructive innovation" of markets, he worked for the social cohesion and inclusiveness that markets don't care about. He took an early leadership position as director of Manitoba Child and Family Services. He cared deeply about government's ability to help those who are in need.

 Intelligence. I first met Reg when he was a student at the Harvard Kennedy School (where he soon became my teaching assistant). While Harvard gets more than its share of smart students, not all of them have the kind of judgment that makes them street-smart as well as school-smart. Reg was both: articulate and creative conceptually, he also made the groups he was involved with (my course, for instance) more intelligent and effective.

Courage. As a public leader, Reg was willing to be both a representative (reflecting the expressed interests of his constituents) and a trustee (educating constituents and pursuing their true interests where his understanding and expertise was ahead of theirs). He focused strategically on issues of productivity and the role of technology in shaping our future. These were often issues where he was a trustee, out in front of many constituents and other public leaders. He was willing to lead, and to absorb the criticism that makes such leadership dangerous. I was particularly proud when Reg became president of the Treasury Board, the agency whose resource-allocation policies exert great influence on how innovation and information technology are managed in Canada.

Enthusiasm. Through it all, Reg was simply great fun to be around. He had sharp insights and colorful stories to tell when he agreed with you—and when he didn't. He immensely enjoyed the give and take of the debates and negotiations required of public life. Many "smart" folks—perhaps folks trained in math, science, and economics as I was—are proud of their ability to solve engineering-style puzzles. Unfortunately, they often don't like and aren't very good at the push and pull of negotiations. Reg enjoyed the battle. He didn't always win (you don't). But he fought the good fight, got very good at his trade and enjoyed it.

We should appreciate what Reg Alcock did and appreciate also what he hoped we will collectively do to reinvigorate public service. He was the kind of public leader we need more of.