Would you run for political office? If you are like most people, it is hard enough to get out and vote let alone run for an elected position. Once you have been elected, the vast majority of your time, energy, commitment and effort has to be spent on what the British/commonwealth tradition calls ‘good government’. Failure to deliver good government will defeat you at polls but it will never win an election, particularly in era of 144 character twitter-attention spans. What will win an election are actions that fall into one of two categories: ribbon cutting and fire rescues.
A ribbon cutting is the delivery of a net new service or good to the community. While it may be a new hospital or highway, it may also be a targeted tax policy or change in legislation. A rescue is where a public official shows his or her mettle by dealing with a crisis, preferably natural and not the fault of the ruling party.
In this context, we can also understand the encroachment of the Nanny State in people’s lives. After all, a government can only build so many hospitals or highways. However, more restrictions on tobacco, lower blood alcohol levels for impaired driving targets or legislation to mandate gay-straight alliances in schools are examples of a government doing something (cutting a ribbon) while paying little in direct costs. This is not to pass comment on the relative merits (or lack thereof) on these and other social engineering efforts. Nevertheless, each of these efforts incrementally expand the role of government in people’s lives. The challenge with this expansion is that we are creating increasingly complex societal-systems. With complexity come instability and the potential for a system failure. With failure comes the need for a rescue and more complexity means more rescues.
A rescue maybe a temporary measure which partially or fully replaces a process. Temporary measures have the habit of becoming permanent ones which in turn creates more exceptions and greater complexities. Worse still is a rescue which resolves one crisis by impairing or destroying a largely functioning process (call this the baby and bathwater rescue).
At this point, if you are tut-tuting the silliness of the public officials cutting ribbons or performing rescues, recognize that you may also be contributing to this behavior. When was the last time your called up your public official and said, ‘great job on peace, order and good government; keep it up’. If you did call, perhaps it was to get a street snow plowed, legislation passed or money spent on an issue important to you.
Successful public officials need to balance election-winning ribbons and rescues while simultaneously providing good-government. Elected officials who focus on ribbons and rescues but lose sight of the ‘peace, order and good government’ can destroy a functioning civil service. In this situation, it takes an effective senior civil servant (e.g. a Deputy Minister or General Manager) to deliver the ribbons and rescues while protecting and improving the organization’s infrastructure and processes.
Thus, if you do plan to run for elected office, thank you. We need good people who are willing to take themselves and their families into the fish bowl. Once you are there, remember the importance of balancing the contradictions of good-government with ribbons-rescues. If you are a senior civil servant, remember it is your role to mitigate the short-term rescues-ribbons with the longer-term sustainment of an effective and efficient government. Neither of these roles (politician or senior civil servant) are easy but both are critical for an effective democracy.