Governing with Purpose

January 13, 2018

If it is true that no crisis should be wasted, it is equally true that no administration evades a crisis. Every public executive—governor, mayor or county executive—at some point in his or her term faces a crisis, be it an economic collapse, operating deficit, administrative scandal or angry electorate. Every small issue—economic, budgetary, contractual, programmatic or technology—can become a big issue and jeopardize the administration’s future.

In today’s unforgiving political climate, no public executive, no matter how honest, resourceful or dedicated, can succeed without a talented, well-organized administration, a thoughtful, focused agenda and a feasible plan for action. Even when our politics are petty, our policies short-sighted and our public institutions calcified, a crisis of public confidence can offer a way forward.

The history books offer many examples of bold leadership. During the Great Depression, for instance, North Carolina’s Governor Gardner faced the economic crisis by balancing the budget and restructuring the key components of state and local government, including educational, highway and prison programs. Today’s public executives face a profoundly different world, but, with the requisite vision, will and resources, they too can provide the transformational leadership that the future demands.

Such leadership requires focus. Henry Adams once wrote that the President “resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek.” This sage counsel also applies to governors, mayors and county executives. While every public administration is shaped by events, the fate of virtually every successful administration is determined early—by a conscious effort to chart a clear course of action.  In calling James Polk one of our nation’s great presidents, another American president, Harry Truman, noted, “He said exactly what he was going to do and he did it.”

The question that faces every new public administration is not whether it will face a crisis. Rather, it is how it will manage that crisis when it arises. Will it abide the status quo or exercise bold leadership and embark on a transformational course?  Will it wallow in trivial partisan bickering or advance sweeping, bi-partisan initiatives for more cost-effectively serving its constituents?  Will it stumble in the eye of the storm or use the crisis to build a government for others to emulate and future generations to enjoy?

Every public executive can lead, if s/he has the vision to see, the humility to listen and the courage to say what must be done.  With the right plan, resources, organization and approach, any new administration can face tough facts, overcome setbacks, consider new ideas and change course.  It can make enviable strides in public safety, community development, education, health care, natural resources and infrastructure.  It can parlay risky public investments into enduring achievements. 

A political campaign may be about hope, but governance is about translating hope into action, a far tougher endeavor. As such, governance requires much more than grand promises and pithy press releases. To overcome the inertia of a large bureaucracy, a public executive must have:

  • A compelling vision based on the leader’s values, promises and aspirations, framed by noble yet actionable themes (e.g., competitiveness, opportunity, safe, healthy communities, modern infrastructure, and responsive, accountable government)
  • Tangible short- and long-term objectives, and measurable milestones, for tracking progress
  • A coherent agenda with pragmatic, detailed action plans for attaining those ends
  • A willingness to expand the small circle of a political campaign into a talented, dedicated and well-prepared management team, one with proven project management expertise
  • A firm grasp of the assets, liabilities, risks and opportunities facing the entity based in part on a thorough base-line analysis of relevant laws, regulations and operating performance
  • An efficient mechanism for synthesizing and evaluating best practices and new ideas
  • Develop a structured management program, including cross-agency initiatives, departmental action plans, legislative agenda, executive orders and processes and dashboard reports (agency and public)
  • A system for continually monitoring progress and changing course, including performance metrics for each agency, program and initiative

In short, every public executive needs a comprehensive governance strategy with the requisite organizational, fiscal, policy, legislative, stakeholder and communications components for success. Without these elements, the boundless post-inaugural optimism can yield (sometimes imperceptibly) to crisis, uncertainty, missteps and defeat.

There is nothing novel about these elements; they are, after all, the basic building blocks of effective governance.  The real challenge is to put them in place before inauguration day. Such planning and preparation will not guarantee the success of every decision.  But, they will greatly enhance the prospects of success for a new public administration. 

Bob Melville