The Best Laid Ballot Plans Go Awry…

m650_1The California Presidential Primary Election is the most complicated election in a four year cycle and has to be among the most complicated in the nation. The ballot for this election features presidential candidates for six political parties.  Each party establishes their own rules and formats for their candidates.  This year, three of the parties have closed their primary which means that only voters already registered with the respective party may vote their candidates.  Three other parties have opened their presidential preference ballot to unaffiliated voters but have closed the election of their party officers.  The result is seven flavors of party ballots for each precinct in the county.

Because the regular Voter Nominated Primary (Top Two) is also on the same ballot for federal, state and county offices, there is also a non-partisan ballot. All voters, affiliated with a party or not, get to vote this portion of the ballot which gives us a total of eight flavors of ballot per precinct with a convoluted decision tree to decide who gets which ballot.  Typically the Top Two primary is straightforward to design and administer, unless there are 34 candidates and a write in for US Senator.  More about that later.

Because a presidential primary is always the most complicated election and the hardest to explain to voters, we spent months developing a plan for both the official ballot and the voter guide to facilitate voter education. Weeks before the candidate filing period ended we had developed and tested mock ups of the ballots and our voter guide.  We accommodated all the variables and constraints of outdated and meaningless formatting, mandatory language, and font size and face requirements in the Election Code and were satisfied that we had everything covered.

We have actively followed and engaged with the President’s Commission for Election Administration (PCEA), and the Center for Design and we tried to adopt their recommendations. We have embraced plain language practices and have considered and adopted many suggestions from language minority groups, from accessibility advocates and from election reform do-gooder organizations of all stripes.

Our designs were the easiest to read and understand, our instructions were as simple and clear as possible, each voter’s ballot was to have offices appear in the same location, and the risk of voter confusion and error would be minimized. As a bonus, our design would save printing and postage costs (for us and the voter) while also reducing the time required to tabulate the voted ballots.

At the last minute, all our work was blown to hell. We now are reduced to a ballot design which is hardly adequate for our needs and the needs of our voters.  The inferior design is driven by a sequence of events entirely outside our control.  The 34 candidates for US Senate triggered a domino effect.  Inflexible, mandated and redundant primary instructions constituted the second domino.  Top down, arbitrary and micromanaging office sequences were the third domino.  The next domino was the 1960s voting system software and hardware which is limited to logic and processing speed only slightly more capable and sophisticated than an abacus.  The next largest domino is the federal and state voting system certification regime that prohibits even the most rudimentary and common sense solutions to programming and database problems which could be fixed by today’s average middle schooler or a free mobile database app.  The final and fatal domino is the reality that there are no better solutions for inadequate voting systems for California for 3-6 years at a minimum.  And then the choices will probably be between various versions of 1990 technology.

The field does not to appear to have learned much since the 200 Presidential election. Despite the recurring cries from commissions, foundations, attorneys, advocates, scholars, think tanks and the public for fixing the things that are wrong with our elections, for making things simpler and less complex, for increasing engagement and participation, for removing barriers and for creating more confidence in our elections; election administration is being smothered by the status quo.

The accretion of outdated and conflicting laws, rules and regulations usually devised by legislators for their own political gain has stressed the system to a near breaking point.  The energetic and blind administration and selective enforcement of purposeless, contradictory laws and regulations actively undermines the integrity of elections.  The inertia of “the way we have always done it” or to choose the most onerous of conflicting statutes is thwarting meaningful reform. The absence of courage to do “what is right” when “what is right” is unpopular or new guarantees election administration to perpetual stasis in an unhealthy state.  In short, election administration is suffering from self-interest, abuse and neglect.

Generally I have been optimistic and have embraced progressive election reforms but I am increasingly concerned that, in the current state of affairs, talk of reform and improvement is only happy talk and wishful thinking. The mass of the whole system may be so weighty as to make it impervious to a paradigm change even by the most intelligent, committed and determined reformers.

But that won’t prevent me, and others, from continuing to tilt at windmills.

Carry on.

 

The Opposite of Courage is Conformity

“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.” ~Rollo May

Almost every definition of courage recognizes that courage is not the absence of fear.  Without over-emphasizing or being over-dramatic, we all have fears.  Some of them are deeply personal and private- self doubt, failure, change, acceptance, self worth, control, etc.  These private fears derive from our own experiences and insecurities and we inevitably take them to work with us.  These fears might be either exacerbated or soothed by our workplace environment and interactions.  t, in any case, they are always present and we act in response to them in one way or another.

Rather than responding to fears, the challenge as a leader is to act courageously and to foster courage in others.

               Act.  Courage is action in spite of fear.   Fear paralyzes.  Fear prevents thinking and reasoning.  Fear stifles our voice.  Fear is embodied in the silent, empty-eyed and frozen appearance of the proverbial “deer in the headlights.”  Just as fear and inaction seal the fate of the deer as a car barrels towards its unwitting target; fear, inaction, and conformity seal the fate of individuals and organizations (although not as suddenly or dramatically.)

               Risk making a mistake.  Inaction because of the fear of making a mistake is the greatest single cause of mediocrity in the work place.  The drive for perfection, when it delays or prevents action out of fear of erring or misjudging, robs a person or team of success rather than ensuring it.  When we fail to act in order to avoid embarrassment and the judgment of others if we make a mistake, we reveal fear and weakness.  We are saying that we prefer to be passive and mediocre rather than risk success.

Courage recognizes that mistakes and mis-steps are not failures; they represent the opportunity to learn and grow for ourselves and others. Michael Eisner, Disney CEO, is reported to have said “To punish failure is yet another way to encourage mediocrity.”  When we recognize that mistakes are an essential part of achieving success and withhold harsh judgments, we empower ourselves and others.

Privilege Principle over Expediency. In the public sector administrators and managers operate by a different set of incentives and motivations than our counterparts in the private sector.  Rather than being motivated and incentivized by profits, losses and bonuses, public administrators and elected officials are often motivated by pleasing others and by not causing any waves.  Elected officials place great value on the views and desires of their constituents which they weigh heavily when setting policy and making decisions.  Administrators tend to be risk averse and generally seek to please as many people as possible- the public, peers, and subordinates.

Perhaps more often than we think, pleasing others and doing the right thing come in conflict, creating a situation in which a choice must be made between expediency (pleasing others) and principle (doing the right thing). Expediency considers each decision in a vacuum with the criterion being the optimal outcome for that specific situation. The criteria for decisions based on expediency are expressed in terms of “Who will benefit?”; “Who will get hurt?”; “Who will be angry?”; “Who will know?”; “How will this affect me?”, etc.  The aggregation of decisions based upon expediency result in inequities, inconsistencies, inefficiency, unpredictability, and chaos while maximizing the benefit to the decision maker personally.

On the other hand, decisions based upon principle place self interest in a subordinate position to “doing the right thing.” “Doing the right thing” is another way of describing decisions that treat everyone equally; that enforce or apply rules, policies, ordinances, and laws rather than ignore them. Doing the right thing is consistent over time and across similar cases.  Doing the right thing does not always win friends or bring personal rewards.  It takes courage to make decisions on principle over expediency when the two are in conflict.  It takes a certain courage to even acknowledge that the two are often in conflict.

Have the Courage to Let Go. There is a paradox that the more an administrator wants to touch everything, the more limited and less effective the administrator becomes.  There are things that are so important to us, things that are so threatening, and things that are such a source of insecurity that we will not yield control even over them even when clinging to them is counter-productive.  For example, when we are jealous of our power and authority we insist on being the final word on everything under our control in order to protect our egos and reputations.  We fail to see that this insistence on control actually limits us and increases the probability of some kind of damage to our reputation and standing.

How is that the case? First, it is an inefficient use of an administrator’s time.  The administrator can easily become overwhelmed by minutiae and delay important actions and decisions.  Insisting on having everything one’s way cuts off the introduction of new ideas and approaches from subordinates.  Such control communicates a lack of trust in the judgment and abilities of others and leads to discouragement and the stifling of initiative in the organization.  At best, this level of control maintains the status quo.  At worst it produces untimely and less than optimal decisions.  It leads to staff morale issues and turnover.

Expressing this paradox in terms of its positive rather than negative outcomes, consider the results of giving up some of the things we cling to:

  • More authority and control given to subordinates increases the span of control of the administrator.
  • More trust in the judgment of subordinates increases the timeliness, quality and quantity of decisions.
  • More credit for success given to others reflects more credibility upon the administrator.
  • Fewer secrets and proactive, top-down sharing of information results in more timely, accurate and complete information being reported to the administrator.
  • Greater transparency in decision making leads to greater confidence and trust in the administrator.
  • More kindness and consideration expressed and demonstrated for others leads to more respect being shown to the administrator.

Reward Courage in Others. Our society is quick and willing to recognize and reward heroism but workplace courage is personal and exhibited without fanfare.  It is seldom heroic and it is often non-conforming in character.  Our culture and bureaucratic environment values and rewards conformity and it is uncomfortable with and often punishes non-conformity.  As administrators, one of our obligations as courageous leaders is to foster an environment where the exercise of personal courage by members of our organization is positively recognized and rewarded.  This might mean having the courage oneself to intervene and re-characterize the organization’s view of the behavior from disruptive and “boat rocking” to admirable and positive.

The value and need for courageous words, ideas, and actions in the workplace has been unrecognized and undervalued. It appears certain to me than courage begets courage.  As leaders, we can foster courage in our organizations by developing and exhibiting greater personal courage to act, to risk, to be principled, to “let go” and to reward courage in others.  We can encourage and inspire others to be courageous.  We can choose courage to be great or we can choose mediocrity, conformity and expediency.

Stay Tuned

(Author’s Note: A version of this article was written and published to an audience of public administrators almost exactly four years ago while ramping up for the 2012 Presidential Election. The observations that triggered the article were drawn primarily from the field of election administration but are also representative of conditions in the public sector generally. As election administrators gear up for another, and potentially raucous, presidential election, the moral and practical value of courageous leadership is even more important.)

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.

Thinking Like Its 1999

imageEach January election officials from across the country as well as many others from government and industry gather in what is called the “Joint Election Official Legislative Committee.” As the name implies, the focus is legislation and developments at the federal level that impact election practices at the local level. Of all the professional meetings held throughout the year by the election profession, this is the most substantive and useful. The networking which occurs among officials from across the country and with others with election related interests is one of the great benefits of the meetings. Despite differing structures, laws, terminologies and sensitivities, the issues and challenges faced by election officials are very similar if not identical.

Typically the topics discussed are voting systems, money and resources, technology, postal regulations, civil rights enforcement, census as well as any proposed legislation. During the first session, attendees are asked what issues are of particular interests for discussion during the multi-day conference. In this morning’s meeting, the issues were not solely the typical reiteration of the usual topics but no clear theme emerged until, Alysoun McLaughlin, the Deputy Director of Elections in Montgomery County, MD, articulated one.
She proposed that we discuss internal processes for effectively managing technology and election processes instead of merely its acquisition. That theme was picked up and added to as others cited her recent piece which was reposted by Doug Chapin and spoke to the need of using language and terminology that is meaningful for those observing the elections process.

This theme echoes much of what I have been proposing in this blog- there is a need for the profession to focus on management skills and professional practices -themes which appeal to some but not to many in the profession. Technical subjects- voting machines, pollworkers, lawsuits, budgets, registration- dominate our discussions while “soft” subjects- leadership, management, performance management, staff development, etc are seldom addressed.

What is the discussion to address the issues Alysoun has raised? Individual voices calling for the introduction of “soft” practices such as Lean quality management practices and administrative reforms are like voices in the wilderness. How can the profession embrace a culture of continuous improvement? How can we leave behind the critical issues of 1999 and more effectively address the issues of 2013?

I am increasingly beginning to believe that those of us who have been in the profession for years and the institutions we have created (and lead) are not best situated or equipped to address 21st century election administration issues. It is promising to see the post-boomer generation move into leadership roles, create new institutions and ask the questions that haven’t been asked nearly enough.

Stay tuned.

Management by the Lowest Common Denominator

lcdManagement by the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD) is a prevalent although inefficient management style in the public sector and one which characterizes the field of election administration. This style of leadership is based on a negative view of people and human nature and is intended to hedge against this nature.  In the field of elections, this is idea is expressed in such terms as:  voters are dumb, poll workers always screw up, temp workers are lazy, observers always cause problems and so on.

Management by LCD explicitly recognizes that mistakes will be made and some individuals can’t be counted on to do what they are asked.  It is true in most organizations that errors are made, misunderstandings occur, some things which should happen don’t get done, and some things that shouldn’t happen occur anyway.  Because these types of things could occur, management by LCD acts as if they must happen.  Because some people will make mistakes or not understand simple instructions, everyone is treated as if they are screw ups and dummies.  This is the idea of the Lowest Common Denominator in action.

In response, rules, policies, decisions, and procedures are developed in anticipation of the actions of the LCD.  This response inevitably leads to repetitive, overly prescriptive and micro-management tactics.  Management by LCD attempts to anticipate every situation and contingency and to prescribe, in advance, a standard solution since others cannot be trusted to problem solve or use their own judgment to handle situations.  Because someone might do it wrong (or differently than the manager), no one is permitted to anything other than follow instructions.  Management by LCD spends endless amounts of time contemplating unlikely “what ifs…” and exceptions at the expense of formulating efficient procedures to handle routine situations.  Ironically, despite all the time and effort to anticipate mistakes and prevent exceptions, mistakes and exceptions are never eliminated.

Management by LCD does not focus on how to best serve the 99% of the customer base efficiently and effectively; rather, it dedicates the majority of its energy and resources to anticipating and resolving potential problems of the 1%.  Of course not all possibilities can be predicted and anticipated in advance since humans are so adept at creatively making errors and misunderstandings.  The fact that exceptions are never eliminated reinforces the need for practitioners of management by LCD to manage in this fashion.  In a viciously circular logic, the inability to prevent exceptions drives management by LCD to expend increasing resources to resolve potential, future problems of a tiny minority at the expense of serving the vast majority.

Not only is management by LCD highly inefficient in delivering services and costly in fiscal terms, it is expensive in human terms as it is demoralizing and punitive to those who work in organizations who practice management by LCD.  Management by LCD prevents capitalizing on the strengths, knowledge and initiative of team members, further contributing to the ineffectiveness of the organization.

Those who have a tendency to manage by the lowest common denominator should take a step back and question their assumptions and ask themselves “Do I give a lot of thought about what people might do wrong or do I do I count on people doing what’s right?”; “Do I try to compensate for possible failures or do I try to facilitate successes?”; “Do I think people are dumb or do I think I need to do a better job communicating expectations?”  “Do I plan for failure or do I plan for success?”  If the responses to these questions point to a style of management by LCD, there are tremendous operational efficiencies, fiscal savings and human successes to be claimed by abandoning “lowest common denominator” thinking.

Stay tuned.

“Managership” or Leadership– The State of Election Administration

Public property keep outA review of the literature on public administration from any university textbook, academic anthology or assigned reading list does not reveal a treatment of leadership in a practical or theoretical context.  Organizational theory and decision-making models and management approaches are the bread and butter of the study of public administration.  Ironically, leadership texts are not found in public administration or political science literature; rather, they are found on business reading lists and in business publications. 

When leadership is addressed in the literature, it is treated as a heroic, charismatic personal attribute – a noun.  A person has it or does not, which largely explains why study and research in leadership has been ignored.  I have a different understanding of leadership- as a verb.  Leadership acts on “what might be” instead of limiting itself to “what was.”  Leadership is forward looking- it seeks solutions to tomorrow’s challenges instead of solving yesterday’s problems.  Leadership maximizes and optimizes its existing resources instead of seeking more.  Leadership sees constraints and setbacks as temporary and transient and seeks success in spite of them.  Leadership does not seek silver-bullet solutions nor does it place all its hopes in technology at the expense of processes.  Leadership looks outward and seeks answers from the knowledge and experience of others.  Leadership lifts, values and develops the people surrounding the leader.  Leadership recognizes its stewardship as a system instead of a collection of singular components and, as a result, can see the relationships contained within the whole.   Leadership calculates both long-term and short-term risk and return and has the courage to act decisively.  Leadership seeks excellence and rejects that which is merely adequate.

“Managership” is inward-looking, centered on the present moment and is satisfied with doing what has already been safely and successfully done by themselves or others.  “Managership” muddles through projects and operations seeking outcomes that suffice, or in other words, that which is “good enough for government work.”   “Managership” seeks solutions in increased or new resources- more people, more money and more technology.  “Managership” deals with issues and makes decisions as they occur- chronology is its prioritizing and organizing principle.  “Managership” analyzes and deliberates on single issues as discrete decisions.  “Managership” sees people as tools and expendable commodities to be consumed in the course of business.  “Managership” settles for local efficiencies at the expense of the efficiency and effectiveness of the whole system.  “Managership” celebrates and adopts “best practices” because someone else has already taken the risk of innovating.

The decentralized and sometimes politicized nature of election administration in the US make it difficult to recruit and prepare administrators who are more than bureaucrats, caretakers and guardians of the status quo.  To be sure, the field would be much improved with a more universal application of the principles of “managership” which comprise the core of the best training currently available to election administrators.   While an improvement, “managership” promises only limited benefits.

Leadership, as I am defining it, , is manifest by those fortunate enough to have been mentored and developed by those who are leaders and also by those who bring experience outside of public administration to election administration.  Leadership calls for a more consistent and proactive development of the next generation of leaders.  As a profession, it is incumbent on those who claim leadership to combine their collective knowledge and wisdom to move away from “managership” and to train and prepare tomorrow’s (and today’s) leaders in election administration. 

Who is in?