The Leaders Who Inspire

December 2015
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

Every day on and every month in the magazine, we document the challenges facing America’s states and localities and the ways in which public officials are working to meet them and seize opportunities. Then, once a year, we step back and look at what we’ve witnessed across the country, consider the hundreds of remarkable people we’ve come across in public life and choose a few who, through innovation and courage, have managed to stand out just a little bit more than the others. These individuals we honor as our Public Officials of the Year.

If there is a dominant theme in the profiles of this year’s honorees, it is captured in the title of Mark Friedman’s book about results-based accountability: Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough. These public leaders have tackled big problems -- problems so large that in some cases they simply seemed intractable. In doing so, the 2016 Public Officials of the Year didn’t just try hard but managed to achieve results that had seemed unimaginable.

At last year’s awards dinner here in Washington, D.C., honoree Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, was the final speaker. When he got up to give his remarks, he said that he and his staff had been sitting there all evening taking notes. There were lessons to be learned from the stories of the other Public Officials of the Year, Snyder said. That was certainly true then and it is true now.

I wish that each of you reading this could be in the room when this year’s honorees are recognized. I think that you would be, as I am every year, inspired and filled with hope. The atmosphere is often electric -- there is laughter, passion and, frequently, a few tears -- and as I meet and listen to these remarkable people, I am buoyed by two truths. For each of the leaders we have found and recognized, there are hundreds more we haven’t yet discovered who are doing equally amazing things on behalf of their states and communities. And our system of governance, as chaotic, fragmented and jerry-rigged as it often seems to be, is built ultimately on a solid foundation: the basic decency of the American people.

We are a big, sprawling, cantankerous country with lots of challenges, and we contain among us huge differences in culture and political vision, but despite this we can still find outstanding leaders and govern ourselves effectively. That is something that ought to give us and our friends in the rest of the world great comfort.