Adaptation and the “Shrek Effect” in Elections


As is usually the case, the period of calm that follows a Presidential election is more an illusion than a reality.  This year, the peace is probably more illusory than most off-years:

    • Legislatures are in session passing laws to fix last year’s problems, real and perceived.  This is the time-honored ritual of closing the barn door after the horses have escaped.
    • The President is forming a new commission to study and propose new election reforms and has pledged to fix the problem of voters waiting in line to vote on Election day.
    • The President has also proposed increasing the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour (Brian Newby explains why this is an election issue).
    • The Post Office, a long-time partner with election administrators, is reducing service and forcing administrators to examine its impact on postmark and ballot receipt requirements.
    • Administrators, both state and local, have received their “report card” in the form of the recently published PEW Election Performance Index and are in the process of deciding how to or if they should respond to this and future studies.

The reflection and discussion that these activities bring to the profession are essential and are part of a healthy post-action, post-election review that characterizes effective management practices.  Unfortunately, much of the value of these exercises escapes our grasp.  Over the period of nearly 20 years in elections I have observed a pattern among administrators, legislatures, scholars and activists that accumulates “best” practices, new policies, laws, regulations, studies and reforms and overlays them onto their existing counterparts every year.

This practice is like a dripping faucet that keeps accreting minerals onto surfaces that eventually become lime and scale deposits which constrict and shut off the flow of water (at worst) or deface and mar the visible appearance of the sink (at best).   While this is an apt visual metaphor, I prefer to call this the “Shrek Effect.”

In the original Shrek movie while the talking Donkey and Shrek, the Ogre, were getting to know each other, the Ogre claimed a complex personality and character.  Donkey, in a flash of understanding, exclaimed “like a parfait!!  You have multiple layers!!”  Shrek agreed, but not willing to accept such a sweet comparison, said “…more like an onion.  I have layers like an onion.”

The “Shrek Effect” is illustrated by problem-solving processes which fail to diagnose the real issues creating the problem.  “Shrek Effect” solutions attack the visible symptoms of issues while leaving the root causes invisible and undisturbed.  The “Shrek Effect” demands immediate and urgent action in the form of visible technical solutions– “If we only did this…”

“Shrek Effect-ed” management relies on borrowing solutions from others– solutions which make some anonymous and dubious claim to being “best practices.”  The result of the “Shrek Effect-ed” processes is the continued layering of the parfait (policy on top of policy).  The result is new layers on the onion (new laws on top of unrepealled old laws).  The result is the relentless mineral accretion of the drip, drip, drip of the faucet (new reforms reforming prior reforms).

The alternative to the “Shrek Effect” is an adaptive approach which conceives of election laws and administration as a system.  It is a problem solving approach which insists on taking the time to diagnose the real problem(s) and which is willing to resist the temptation to act for the sake of action.

It is an approach which critically identifies and considers assumptions underlying both the existing practices and the proposed solutions.  It is an approach that develops and assesses multiple solutions before committing to a course of action.  It is an approach that is willing to get rid of unneeded clutter and noise –to perform housekeeping on the existing inventory of policies, practices and canons of law.  It is an iterative approach which is constantly evaluating effects and outcomes and which makes adjustments on an on-going basis.

Adaptive leadership and management techniques are proven to be effective but they are not part of our public/election administration education, training and culture.   Adaptive leadership and management requires more patience, more self-reflection, and more courage than the muddling style of so many administrators and scholars.

As the profession participates, navigates, and deliberates in the forums and venues of 2013, situations will arise in which administrators, scholars and politicians can mitigate the “Shrek Effect” and foster adaptive solutions.  To do otherwise invokes the plot of another well-known movie- Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.”

Note: For more information regarding Adaptive Leadership, see The Practice of Adaptive Leadership and the Kansas Leadership Center.

Stay Tuned.


Federalism, Reform and the State Election Paradigm

federalism mapSeveral years ago in an interview with the original Commissioners of the US Election Assistance Commission, I made the assertion that there is no such thing as a “federal election.”  After a few moments of stunned silence, Buster Soares, the Chair of the Commission, asked me to explain what I meant- which I did.  Later in the interview, he again returned to my assertion and asked what the implications were to my argument.

I have been reminded of this exchange by the recent discussion of federal actions to address the perceived election issues from the past 2012 election.  The role of the federal government in election reform has always been contentious.  The reason for controversy lies in the evolution of the popular view of our federal form of government.  Americans today see the United States as a single nation, a unitary actor, which is (or should be) governed by a leader popularly elected by all the citizens of the nation.

When inconsistencies between laws, practices and systems between states and local jurisdictions are revealed during an election, the public perceives sloppiness, mismanagement and even malfeasance.  The Electoral College notwithstanding, shouldn’t all Americans have an equal opportunity to elect their President?  Obviously, the solution is for Congress, the President or the courts to mandate technical and uniform standards for federal elections so that everyone elects the President the same way.

A person in Florida shouldn’t have to wait in line to vote any longer than a person in Kansas, right?  Why should a voter in Oregon be forced to vote by mail when in Nevada a voter can vote early at lunchtime at their workplace or when a voter in Virginia must appear in person at the polls to vote?  Why should a provisional ballot cast in Washington State be counted when the provisional ballot of a voter from Ohio in the same circumstance is not counted?  Why should a voter in Arizona be compelled to produce valid photo identification to vote and another voter in California be allowed to vote without identification?  Why should counties in Utah audit their electronic voting machines using a paper audit trail and counties in Georgia, using the same voting system, not be required to create a paper record of votes?  These questions only have relevance when there is an assumption of a “federal election”, a national election conducted on a common date.

My answer to the Commissioners was that, in reality, there are 50+ state elections conducted on the same day but using different laws and regulations for federal, state and local offices.  Our system of federalism, rather than a national form of government (or as Madison describes it in Federalist 51- our compound republic), intentionally diffuses power between states and the federal government and establishes an elaborate system of checking and balancing power.  The methods of electing persons to federal office (House, Senate and President) in the Constitution were created to be part of the balancing mechanisms.  The Federalists, in advocating for ratification, argued that the Constitution did not create a national government but a federation of sovereign states who would elect and send their representatives to the federal Congress.

To balance against the whims of public opinion and to minimize the framers’ fear of a fickle and uniformed popular vote, the Constitution specified that only members of the House of Representatives could be elected by a vote of the people.  Senators would be indirectly elected by the state legislatures and the President, even more indirectly, by the Electoral College whose delegates would be appointed or elected by the states.  The 17th Amendment changed the method of electing Senators by permitting their direct election by the voters of each state.  We can see then, that those that hold federal office, including the President, are elected at the state and not federal level as specified by the Constitution.

The constitution is otherwise silent on the laws, regulations and procedures for conducting elections thereby delegating responsibility for elections to the states (at least not claiming it for itself).  The 10th Amendment reinforces the authority of the states to conduct elections as they will.

There is a conflict between the 21st century expectations of American voters and elected leaders and the federalism’s Constitutional paradigm.  Rather than acknowledging and addressing the conflict, the public, pundits, and media call for solutions to which those in authority are happy to respond.  Tiptoeing carefully around Constitutional concerns, the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) “mandated” voting system reforms by footing the bill for voluntary compliance and by creating the ever oxymoronic federal “Voluntary Voting System Standards.”  Further, HAVA ordered the states to develop provisional voting, voter intent and voter registration reforms but was silent on the substance of the reforms deferring instead to the states to implement them as they saw fit.  The unintended, but not unexpected, outcome of imposing solutions without addressing the paradigmatic conflicts is a crazy quilt of conflicting legislation, practices and case law.

One of the reasons states resist federal solutions for electing federal officers, besides the issues of federalism, is the concurrent election of a myriad of state and local officials on the same ballot as the federal offices.  Any changes targeted to federal offices have an usually undesirable ripple effect to state and local offices.  States compound the problem by loading up the even year ballot with as many offices and ballot measures as possible to get economies of scale and cost savings.  As a Registrar of Voters in California, I received scores of petitions from local governments to change their election cycle from odd to even years for the sole purpose of reducing election costs.  The result is extremely long, complex and cumbersome ballots that feature federal offices as well as every minor local office.

The point of this diatribe is to propose that further federal reforms not be hastily considered and added to the often contradictory and ambiguous existing canon of election law.  Additionally, it is time to acknowledge the elephant in the room which represents the conflict between modern expectations of elections and federalism.  It is time to discuss solutions which bridge this paradigmatic divide.  It is time to identify and discuss strategies for bifurcating state and federal elections.  For example, how could elections for federal office be conducted on a different day than state elections?  If elections were on different days, could there be a uniform set of federal rules for federal offices?  Could elections for federal office be conducted by federal authority?

The answers to these questions have the potential of addressing and resolving all the issues of voter equity raised earlier.  Doing more of the same type of federal election reform as the past will only add new patterns to the crazy quilt of election laws and practices without realizing the intended results of the reforms.

“Muddling Through” Election Administration

For several years I have written periodic columns in a series called “Public Administration Insights” for a local news/politics website  A particular column invokes the scientific term “muddling through” as a management and decision making style.

Effective management is probably the most important thing an election administrator can do to prevent or minimize situations that introduce ambiguity into an electon.  Rather than write something new specifically for election folks and this blog, I am posting a link to the original article.

Utah Policy logoUtah Policy – Smart Public Administration “Muddling Through” Reprised

Despite the highly visible nature of election administration, it is no more “special” than any other public sector management context and can be well managed using the same concepts as a Public Works Director, an HR manager, or a Human Services supervisor.

How does one know if they are a muddler or part of a muddling team?

“A muddling team may be earnest and hardworking but may not be effective if their  activities do not correlate to the services and functions they are expected to  provide.  Some manifestations of muddling include the inability to answer  the question “Why do you do ‘it’ that way?” without saying “We’ve always done ‘it’ that way.”  Muddling teams do not have documented procedures and often  solve routine problems differently each time they occur and/or team members each  solve the same problem differently.  Although technology, laws and  expectations change over time, muddling teams do not reassess and revise their  practices to account for the changes, preferring instead the security and  familiarity of outdated processes.  Muddling teams make decisions based  upon what people can agree on rather than on an objective analysis of ends and  means.”

No single administrator, manager or leader can change a “muddling through” culture.

“The commitment [to effective management] must be made by the entire management/leadership team of an  organization who must be willing to critically examine its business functions,  objectives, assumptions, processes and “way of doing business” for the purpose  of improving its performance and level of service to its customers while  increasing its effective use of human, capital and fiscal resources.”

Read more:  Utah Policy – Smart Public Administration

Stay Tuned

DropBox, Mediocrity and Elections

dropboxI came across a blog post targeted towards entrepreneurs that discussed the value of the same principles of failure and learning that I proposed in the post “Really Scott.”  The post is from the blog OnStartups and is a discussion of the success of the on-line data storage company DropBox.

The insight that the author drew from the experience of DropBox is “The worst outcome for a startup is not failure — it’s mediocrity.”  The election administration corollary is “The worst outcome for an election is not failure — it’s mediocrity.”  I know many administrators (and candidates, parties and reporters) that are more than satisfied with an uneventful yet mediocre election.  Why and how could mediocrity be worse than failure?

The answer comes from the experience of DropBox as reported in the post:

“Here’s the big lesson: Many founders think that the worst outcome you can have in a startup is failure. You try something and it fails. And yes, failing sucks. But, what’s worse than failing is going sideways for years and years. Being stuck in a quagmire of mediocrity. Things are going reasonably well, but not spectacularly well. The reason mediocrity sucks more than failure is very simple: Failure lets you move on, mediocrity stalls you and keeps you from reaching your potential.”

Previously I wrote “An election that avoids learning moments and ambiguity by sheer luck and good fortune (rather than by effective procedures and management) is not, by definition, a “good” election.”  It cannot be “good” because the experience does not provide sufficient basis and motivation for improvement.

Mediocrity impairs learning by avoiding the pain that failure brings.  The pain of failure is what drives people and organizations to learn, change and improve.  A mediocre organization only seeks to maintain its mediocrity.

There are many management lessons to be learned and applied to election administration from the business world.  Similarly theories of management, organizational development and public administration generally should be more vigorously used to explain and understand election administration behavior. 

Stay tuned.