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.


“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?


Conferences, Professional Education and Casablanca

Usual suspectsAs I attend the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials annual conference in Redwood City this week, I am reminded of the importance of professional training, sharing and networking. Professional conferences are an excellent venue for discussing topics of common interest and sharing successful practices particularly in the field of elections. The value of these types of conferences is to reinforce existing professional knowledge and to offer opportunities to look at current practices in a new light. Occasionally conferences provide a window through which election administrators can peer into the future. And sometimes the slow moments during a conference lead one to think of famous lines from classic movies.

As I enjoy renewing friendships and professional relationships with administrators, vendors and members of the broader election community, I cannot help but make a couple of observations about the profession in the US. The first observation is that there is no academic path to prepare a person to be an election administrator. On the job training and the school of hard knocks continues to be the norm. Each new election administrator repeats, to some extent, the same mistakes and learns the same hard lessons as countless of his or her peers. This is not an effective way to train and learn. Conferences augment this learning and occasionally provide tips for avoiding mistakes made by others.

For some time The Election Center has had a professional training program, other professional organizations offer some training and some states have a training and certification program. Nonetheless, the professional education and training of election administrators remains primarily practical, on the job, trial and error based. This tells me that current education and training programs fall short in meeting the needs of election administrators.

The second observation is that there is a group of administrators, members of the elections community and academics that comprise what the French police Captain Renault in Casablanca  refers to as the “usual suspects.” This is the group of a dozen or two people which are inevitably the ones called upon to offer testimony to commissions and hearings, to serve on committees/task forces, to speak at conferences, to make presentations and to be quoted in studies and media reports. While individually these “usual suspects” are highly qualified, have excellent credentials and articulate themselves well; as a group they are not representative of the whole elections community. This small group wields a disproportionate influence on the national discourse on elections as they travel from one event and venue to the next. When the experience and expertise of such a small group is relied on so heavily, there is an inherent loss of diversity in viewpoints and experiences, a loss of competing of ideas, the development of “groupthink” and the assumption of common legal frameworks and policy values.

I am not proposing solutions but rather I am inviting others to consider these observations, weigh their validity and offer their own ideas and observations.

Stay tuned.