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.


4 thoughts on “Adaptation and the “Shrek Effect” in Elections

  1. It seems to me that you are attempting to “speak truth to power” without offending said power. Most incumbent public servants do try to avoid “getting all up in the grille” of, ohhh, let’s pick at random, the President of the United States. So allow me.

    “Scott is trying to politely say this – you commission will solve nothing and it’s likely to make things worse, far worse. Elections are difficult things and they are administered by fallible human beings who do not have the gift of seeing the future in perfect resolution, unlike Your Eminence.”


    1. Kurt- my concerns are more general. Executives and legislators at all levels fail to see their own hand in creating the Shrek effect. While it cannot be denied that some election problems and issues are a result of mismanagement at the local level, the system itself in its complexities and contradictions is a result of state and federal actions.

      Thank you for seeing that I am attempting a dialogue without giving offense but my critiques are not directed at any specific office of level of government.


      1. And may I add as but one example, carved out of the post-2000 declaration that “We have to do SOMETHING”, the over-mandated, but under-trained and oft misunderstood provisional ballot. There is no single thing in elections so poorly understood, including by those who legislated it, and so hamfistedly mis-administered as the provisional ballot. From my experience, it seems to suffer from the “broken clock rule” – correct about twice a day. In the 7+ years since I have left the election administration profession, I have personally seen, in precinct, misapplication of provisional ballots numerous times. I’ve seen provisionals forced on voters when they did not apply, and seen them denied when they were appropriate.

        No one seems to understand the utter violence to the franchise that complexity spawns. It is the antithesis to voter enfranchisement, not its salvation. If complexity could be matched with perfect implementation, perhaps all would be well. But in my state, the use of ANY level of goverment employee of any level inside a polling location is constitutionally prohibited. This places those most capable of handing bureaucratic complexity off limits to the list of those eligible to serve, leaving us with confused geriatric precinct officials, primarily.


      2. One needs to keep in mind that in industrial states primarily (PA, NY, NJ, IL, OH, etc.), those Election Codes were written with an eye toward an utterly adversarial and frequently contentious process of being admitted to “the enclosed space”, i.e. the place you go to vote once you got your ballot. The code was written not to maximize turnout or encourage full participation, but with a concept that partisan polling place officals would “stand up for your party’s voters and afflict the other party’s”. If there is now the generally understood agreement that such a system needs to be over, then we need to repeal a whole bunch of law that is on the books.


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