To Our Newly Seated Public Servants
Congratulations! Now that the election is over, the honor soon will be over as well, and the responsibility of office will take hold. Though I've never held an elected public office, I have held an appointed federal office. I make that disclosure simply to suggest a modicum of credibility in giving the advice I am about to give to you, our newly elected and our re-elected officials – and to anyone thinking seriously of running for office in the future.
The office is never about you. It really isn't an honor. It's simply a heavy responsibility, a duty to be carried out with hard work, common sense and humility. I suggest all the pats on the back, the ego-building good wishes, or the sense that God ordained you to lead, in the end prove to be self-induced hype and not helpful in what lies ahead for creating sound policy and solving problems – especially when working with your fellow public officials, who may not be like-minded.
Most likely, sooner rather than later, the honor quickly recedes to a choice: Do you hide your fear of thankless responsibility by glad-handing and phony back-slapping political rhetoric (the Michigan House and Senate model)? Do you demand adherence to your dogmatic view of life (I call this "the Leelanau model")? Or do you roll up your sleeves and rationally face your nemeses (the Chris Bzdok model)? Your nemeses typically will take the shape of an entrenched bureaucracy – i.e., the good old boys, city hall and its managers. And if you're leading from the center, you can avoid pandering to the fringe – be it the left or right.
In my case, public service was simply about facing a history of managerial malaise. For my predecessors, it had been far more politically expedient to turn a blind eye than to confront the myriad problems, thus making problems worse – a standard story in pubic sector bureaucracies. I had been forewarned, but the perceived honor of the appointment initially clouded the reality of the situation, much like the honor of your election, at first, might cloud yours.
The "honor" of my appointment started its exit soon after taking office. Within days of my swearing in, I needed to confer with a lawyer in the civil division of the office. Walking down to their department that first afternoon, I was taken aback by how quiet and empty it was. No one was there. No one! I was told by my inherited mid-management that Tuesday afternoons were matinee days for the civil division and were justified as morale builders – obviously, very expensive tax-funded morale builders.
Immediately, my choice of paths emerged. Would I get along by going along and ignoring the elephants in the room? Would I demand adherence to my ego and ideology? Or, would I rationally attempt to make changes to a culture that had been christened the Titanic of bureaucratic malaise by the professional public servants within the office? I won't bore you with the next seven years of history other than to assure you it was interesting, very interesting. But I can assure you that if you take the right path, you will have your own stories, your own history. But most importantly, you'll maintain your dignity.
Thank you for taking on this important work and, from all of us, best of luck. We are counting on you.