Inside or Outside the Box?

Several times during the election conference I am attending, I have heard the expression “outside the box.” To no one’s surprise, many (but not all) of these comments were directed at me and many of the ideas I have expressed in this blog. Like much jargon, overuse has changed the original meaning of the term. Originally, the term was positive and conveyed innovation. The tone and meaning of this week ‘s comments ranged from “I never thought of it that way before” and “Dude, you are waaay out there.” The latter implying that being “outside the box” is a negative and unsafe place to be. These polar opposite normative takes on the expression appear to echo the attitudes the speakers hold on change (see my previous post “Faster Horses and Election Administration“.)

It occurs to me that those who see being outside the box as dangerous may be drawing the box too small. There is a perception that external constraints, i.e. legislation, regulations, traditions, past practices and fear, compress the size of the “box.” The smaller box is drawn by segments of a wide and varied cast- administrators, legislators, vendors, academics, advocacy groups, and of the political class.

Yesterday a direct question about these kinds of constraints was posed to me and here is my response:

“Election Administration is always performed in the context of statutory and regulatory constraints. Effective administration is able to manage and succeed within any framework. In CA at the moment the statutory and regulatory framework is difficult and arguably overly complicates administration generally and HAVA implementation specifically. Having said that, my position is that these constraints should not be used as an excuse. My past and present experience confirms generous areas in which administrators can and should be using their knowledge, expertise, judgement and discretion to reform or create more effective practices to manage within safely within existing laws and limits. Certainly, administrators acting collectively and collaboratively can influence the changes and reforms to these constraints more effectively than actions by single counties/voices. Unfortunately, administrators tend to be focused on preserving the status quo rather than creating and embracing a vision of what could/should be in a set of future laws and regulations.”

As I penned this response it occurred to me that there is often more room in the “box” than what we see and use. In fact, thinking is seldom truly “outside the box.” The “boxes” we operate in as we administer elections is really a very large “box.” When we realize this and draw the “box” larger, it is much safer to consider new, unconventional and innovative ideas.

To improve the practices and administration of elections, to find solutions to complex issues, to successfully collaborate, share and innovate, we should recognize that our “box” is large and that the constraints of a “box” are largely self-imposed.

Faster Horses and Election Administration

I haven’t posted for a while even though I have written at least a half dozen drafts on different topics but could never complete and post them.  I have been trying to figure out why I couldn’t wrap up my thoughts in any of the draft posts.  I seem to have been of two minds as I wrote each of them.

The title of this blog is “theory and praxis” which were intentionally used to illustrate the exclusive tendencies of each.  During the last few months of settling back into the rhythm and routine of an election administrator, theories and thoughts of how elections should be conducted and the reality of implementing those ideas have repeatedly collided in a type of public administration dialectic.

Scholars espouse and promote theories and studies of how elections could and should be conducted with the underlying assumption that election administration needs to improve.  Election administrators, on the other hand, protect the status quo as sufficient and count on a hardy dose of hard work and self-sacrifice to make up for any shortfall between good and good enough.

With a foot in each camp, I often become conflicted.

Improving election administration requires changes in an entrenched profession—changes in assumptions, changes in values, changes in expectations, changes in practices, changes in policies and changes in procedures.  The psychological, intellectual and physical effort that it takes to change the elections culture and practices, even in small organizations, is tremendous as I know first-hand.  I always expect those most directly involved in change- the staff- to be the most resistant to new ways of seeing things.  Interestingly I have noted that colleagues from other jurisdictions get may wind of changes and, when they do, they can react with the same visceral responses as staff- sometimes even more dramatically as they don’t need to maintain the same working relationships.  Similarly, those who have left the profession often find it hard to accept that change is occurring in their absence and find it hard to resist stirring the pot or criticizing.

folding_plow_truck_dmc5Another observation has been that change implies to some that current practices are wrong or broken.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a mantra that is overused and has become a defense and risk aversion strategy.  While there is some merit to the wisdom of not tinkering with something that is already working, a literal belief in the maxim means that change only happens when something fails.  Change then becomes a condemnation of the previous practice.  Such a view devalues growth and learning and is antithetical to practices that promote continuous improvement.  It fails to recognize the value of going from good to better while preserving a “good enough” culture.

I vacillate between defending the practices and attitudes of election administrators on one hand and rigorously criticizing the bureaucratic and status quo culture of the profession on the other hand.  I have great respect and sympathy for election administrators and endlessly admire their earnestness and hard work, after all I have been one myself for nearly twenty years.  But, I also believe that improvements must be made to the way elections are administered if confidence in the system is to be retained—and improvements mean changes are required.

I alternate, even as I write this, between being too soft and too harsh in my analysis and critique of the profession of election administration and its resistance to new assumptions, new values, new expectations, new practices, new policies new procedures and new metrics.  Henry Ford is reported to have remarked on the earthshaking change his innovative assembly line manufacturing introduced to the world by noting “If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  Sometimes the election profession cannot envision what could be as it is so content with and protective of the familiar and only aspires to faster horses instead of race car.

Now my two minds are revealed.  I haven’t yet worked out how to reconcile the minds yet but I at least have more insight into why the last months have been so conflicted and exhausting.

Stay tuned.