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.)

Advertisements

Revisiting Election Costs, Used Cars, and Blue Books

kelly_blue

[Note: A year and a half after I posted some thoughts on election costs to this blog, I participated in a meeting of election officials as part of this project.  The experience harkens visions of the process of calculating election costs as a Rube Goldberg contraption.For those unfamiliar with the expression, Merriam Webster, In 1931, adopted the phrase “Rube Goldberg” as an adjective defined as accomplishing something simple through complicated means.

In the spirit of that image, I thought I would re-post my observations regarding election costs.]

 

“The bill is just a made-up number.  The true problem in health care is we don’t understand our costs. If you don’t know your costs, you can’t drive down health spending in this country.” ~ University of Utah Health Sciences Senior Vice President Vivian Lee (Salt Lake Tribune, December 16, 2013)

This quote might have easily been made about election costs.  Last week at the California Election Officials’ New Law Conference in Sacramento, it was announced that the Future of California Elections (FOCE) and the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) received a generous grant from the Irving Foundation to study the cost of elections in California.  There were few details offered about the scope, purpose and objectives of the study and no details on either the FOCE website or the Irvine Foundation site which is probably because the grant was recently announced.

The cost of elections has long been an interest of mine.  I chaired the Washington State Auditors Association Task Force on Election Costs from 1999-2002.  I have defended billing practices from challenges by Elected Officials, Fiscal Officers and Financial Auditors.  I have developed, documented and implemented county election cost calculators and billing protocols for a half dozen jurisdictions.    I have written legislative proposals, academic papers and even recently blogged on the question of election costs- The Mystery of Election Costs.

It is this long-term interest in election costs that has triggered a myriad of questions about what is(are) the question(s) the research is intended to answer; from which point of view will the issue be considered; about whether policy proposals are intended to be a work product of the study.

How much does that election cost?  Sounds like a simple and straight forward question, right? Maybe if you are a member of the public, activist or a scholar. 

If you are a county legislator, administrator or budget person you are probably asking questions like:  How much was actually expended for the election?  How much in addition to previously appropriated funds were expended?  How much were local funds?  How much was offset by revenue?  What is the difference between current expenditures and expected reimbursement?

If you are the entity for whom the election was conducted you are asking:  How much are you charging me for this election?  What are the indirect costs you are charging me?  What is my cost per voter compared to the cost per voter of others or the past?  Why is it so much?

If you are someone concerned about the cost of elections with dreadfully low participation rates or someone seeking to sensationalize low turnout you would be asking:  What was the cost of each vote cast in the election?

This type of thing should not be very surprising to anyone who has asked, “What does that car cost?”  Everyone has heard of the “Kelly Blue Book”, the authoritative guide to pricing a car, but few know that there are different versions with different values depending on who you are and your reason for asking the question.  The consumer has one version for private sales which contains high and low values depending on the condition of the car.  Most consumers think this is the only book and everyone is working with the same information.  Not so.  Different versions of the Blue Book are closely held and contain different values based upon whether you are a dealer and reselling a car, a dealer taking a car in trade or an insurance agent calculating salvage or replacement value.  The cost of the exact same car, like an election, is calculated based upon the assumptions you make, your reason for asking and the capacity in which you ask the question.  The answer is never the same.

Any study of election costs which does not acknowledge these realities can save a lot of time and money and conclude right up front, like health care in the quote above, “The [cost] is just a made up number.”

Stay tuned.

Election Costs, Used Cars, and Blue Books

kelly_blue“The bill is just a made-up number.  The true problem in health care is we don’t understand our costs. If you don’t know your costs, you can’t drive down health spending in this country.” ~ University of Utah Health Sciences Senior Vice President Vivian Lee (Salt Lake Tribune, December 16, 2013)

This quote might have easily been made about election costs.  Last week at the California Election Officials’ New Law Conference in Sacramento, it was announced that the Future of California Elections (FOCE) and the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO) received a generous grant from the Irving Foundation to study the cost of elections in California.  There were few details offered about the scope, purpose and objectives of the study and no details on either the FOCE website or the Irvine Foundation site which is probably because the grant was recently announced.

The cost of elections has long been an interest of mine.  I chaired the Washington State Auditors Association Task Force on Election Costs from 1999-2002.  I have defended billing practices from challenges by Elected Officials, Fiscal Officers and Financial Auditors.  I have developed, documented and implemented county election cost calculators and billing protocols for a half dozen jurisdictions.    I have written legislative proposals, academic papers and even recently blogged on the question of election costs- The Mystery of Election Costs.

It is this long-term interest in election costs that has triggered a myriad of questions about what is(are) the question(s) the research is intended to answer; from which point of view will the issue be considered; about whether policy proposals are intended to be a work product of the study.

How much does that election cost?  Sounds like a simple and straight forward question, right? Maybe if you are a member of the public, activist or a scholar. 

If you are a county legislator, administrator or budget person you are probably asking questions like:  How much was actually expended for the election?  How much in addition to previously appropriated funds were expended?  How much were local funds?  How much was offset by revenue?  What is the difference between current expenditures and expected reimbursement?

If you are the entity for whom the election was conducted you are asking:  How much are you charging me for this election?  What are the indirect costs you are charging me?  What is my cost per voter compared to the cost per voter of others or the past?  Why is it so much?

If you are someone concerned about the cost of elections with dreadfully low participation rates or someone seeking to sensationalize low turnout you would be asking:  What was the cost of each vote cast in the election?

This type of thing should not be very surprising to anyone who has asked, “What does that car cost?”  Everyone has heard of the “Kelly Blue Book”, the authoritative guide to pricing a car, but few know that there are different versions with different values depending on who you are and your reason for asking the question.  The consumer has one version for private sales which contains high and low values depending on the condition of the car.  Most consumers think this is the only book and everyone is working with the same information.  Not so.  Different versions of the Blue Book are closely held and contain different values based upon whether you are a dealer and reselling a car, a dealer taking a car in trade or an insurance agent calculating salvage or replacement value.  The cost of the exact same car, like an election, is calculated based upon the assumptions you make, your reason for asking and the capacity in which you ask the question.  The answer is never the same.

Any study of election costs which does not acknowledge these realities can save a lot of time and money and conclude right up front, like health care in the quote above, “The [cost] is just a made up number.”

Stay tuned.

Reflections of a Prodigal Election Administrator

prodigal sonAfter nearly two months back in California and back in the society of Election Officials, I have made many observations about the art and profession of administering elections.  Most of these observations are not new but I am seeing them anew and from a slightly different perspective of a scholar and a returning “prodigal”.  I know that after a few more months, I will probably re-assimilate and will lose the perspectives I presently enjoy.

I am always struck and am somewhat in awe of the dedication and hard work of election staffs which are repeatedly demonstrated and which have become central features of a powerful professional culture.  The ability, and even the willingness, to do more of the impossible with even less is the hallmark of dedicated election officials.  Hard work, long hours and working weekends never discourage election officials; in fact, they are a badge of honor of sorts.  As a result of the enormity of the work, the intense public scrutiny and the under-appreciation of their efforts, election officials celebrate their underdog status.  It is understandable if, during this celebration of their resilience and ability to perform the impossible, a sense of fatalism, victimhood and martyrdom creep into the way the business of elections is conceived, planned and conducted.

As an election consultant and itinerant election official, I have spent time with nearly 60 county level election offices and have repeatedly observed that complexity, redundancy, bureaucracy and degrees of difficulty are relished and typify election administration.  Suggestions which reduce the level of difficulty of the work an office performs are often perceived as shortcuts which promote laziness and lack the proper work ethic.  Proposals to simplify and streamline election operations are seen as dangerous and irresponsible. Those who are captured by the predominant professional culture find safety and security in complexity and obfuscation.  Needless to say, those making such suggestions and proposals are sometimes looked upon with suspicion and mistrust for their willingness to deconstruct bureaucratic rules and to interpret statutes permissively.

The danger of the culture of the profession is, if there is any, the propensity to be content with merely working hard at the expense of working smart.  The danger is committing time and resources to activities for which there is no purpose other than to be busy.  The rigid commitment to the “means” without a clear understanding of the ”ends” to be achieved can lead, perversely, to opposite and negative outcomes.  When all rules, processes and operations are granted equal importance and status (i.e. got to do it all, everything is top priority), critical operations and processes are compromised . When everything is “top priority”, everything is also, by definition, the “last priority.”

Sports coaches demand 110% effort of their players and athletes claim to give a 110% level of performance despite the logical fallacy and physical impossibility represented by the expression.  The culture of the election profession seems to cling to similar and equally faulty maxims such as, “If some is good,  then more is better” and “Problems are best solved by throwing resources at them.”   In practice, these maxims (and the 110% effort cliché) are played out by substituting effort, overtime and long hours for planning and effective management.  Besides the added monetary costs this approach represents, it introduces increased human costs: fatigue, exhaustion and reduced alertness and stamina.  These human costs inevitably take a toll on accuracy and efficiency- error rates go up and productivity goes down.  This results, predictably, in more overtime and longer hours…ad infinitum.  While, the toll on physical and mental health is difficult to measure,  election officials incredibly take pride in adapting to and enduring sustained periods of stress.  Bodies and minds succumb eventually which explains why so many election officials routinely become sick and finally need to take time off immediately after an election.

This prodigal thinks that metrics of success and accomplishment in the culture of the elections profession need to change from enduring endless and thankless toil, from successfully coping with mind-numbing complexity (or at least waiting until after the election to breakdown), from  illusion of the effectiveness of multi-tasking while delusional from fatigue, and from juggling as a priority setting strategy.  Success and accomplishments should be measured instead by the absence of crises, the notable reduction of stress and the freedom to enjoy friends, family and college football on Saturday afternoons in October and November.

Stay tuned.

A Model Worth Emulation

weirIt has been a couple of weeks since my last post and during that period I have had some significant professional and personal events that have reminded me of the importance of the commitment to continuous improvement, especially when the opportunity to improve and advance is contingent upon recognizing and owning weaknesses and mistakes.

I was prompted to to write this post after reading a tribute to a friend and colleague who has retired after 24 years in the election business- Steve Weir- the Clerk/Registrar of Contra Cost County, CA.  The tribute recognized in Steve a quality that all election administrators should develop or enhance- the ability to say “We made a mistake.”

In a previous post I pointed out the paradox between election administrators’ conscientious commitment to perfection and the benefits of recognizing and learning from mistakes.  It is impossible to improve if mistakes or weaknesses are hidden or unacknowledged.

“… it is understandable for election officials to conscientiously set a high yet unobtainable standard of perfection and to choose not to see or admit to ever falling short of that standard. The price is too high. Yet the adoption of this seemingly noble and highly responsible standard -perfection- has two paradoxically negative and unanticipated outcomes. First, it reinforces an unreasonable and unattainable expectation, among the public, media and politicians, that an election is only acceptably “good” when conducted without issues or errors. Second, the façade of perfection often adopted by election administrators truncates the feedback loop that is a necessary part of the cycle of learning and improving.

The personal cost of publically acknowledging “learning moments” can be unnecessarily high and painful. The unrecognized organizational cost of ignoring or hiding the “learning moments” is even higher.”

In an opinion piece published this past weekend, Lisa Vorderbrueggen, the election beat reporter for the Contra Costa Times wrote in a piece entitled “Weir’s honesty is a model worth emulation”:

“Journalists have a special place in their otherwise cold little hearts for the true public servants who pursue the public good even when it runs counter to their personal interests.

Steve Weir is such a man. He retired Friday after 24 years as Contra Costa County’s election chief and clerk-recorder.

Many people know the diligent Weir for his unyielding political neutrality, his extraordinary kindnesses and his willingness to stand publicly for same-sex partner equality.

But reporters know the former Concord mayor as that exceedingly rare elected official who routinely sent out news releases that detailed mistakes no one knew — and might never have known about.

‘Steve was not only totally forthright when you asked him questions, but he would also tell you things you needed to know, even if it didn’t make him or his office look good,’ said one journalist who covered Weir for many years.

His biggest crisis came when scrutiny over a tight 1996 San Ramon Valley schools tax measure revealed thousands of incorrect or missing sample ballots and the destruction of ballots. Weir ended up in court, and the grand jury published a critical report.

But Weir didn’t duck and cover.

Instead, he moved his desk into the election department lobby and faced the crisis head-on.

Oh, there were still mistakes. Since then, Weir has confessed to everything from ballots mailed to the wrong houses to ballots with missing races to ballots missing altogether.

 ‘I believe you should confess, fix the problem and move on because there is always another mistake waiting, and the next one could bury you,’ Weir said.

Elected officials everywhere would do well to model themselves after Weir: Tell the whole truth early and often. Shoulder all the blame but generously share the credit.  Adopt a ‘give respect, get respect’ approach both inside and outside the office.

These practices are not only the right thing to do; they pay big dividends when it comes to voters’ trust — not a single person challenged Weir in six elections.”

I can’t think of a better tribute to be paid to an election administrator from a reporter.  However, transparancy and honesty are not the only constructive reason to acknowledge shortcomings.  Again from a previous post:

“…errors and mistakes in elections seldom affect the outcomes and should not be considered inherently fatal to acknowledge. The healthy and constructive approach, which I am advocating working toward, is one in which it is safe to acknowledge mistakes and failures for the purpose of learning and improving from them. To do otherwise casts unjustified suspicion on elections and election administrators and inhibits a culture of continuous learning and improvement from which the profession can greatly benefit.”

Stay tuned.

Ambiguity and Transparency in Elections

This morning, Doug Chapin blogged on the recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, based in Philadelphia, in its opinion PG Publishing Company, Inc. v. Aichele.  The case involves media access to polling places on Election day to report on the implementation of the state’s new and controversial voter ID requirement.  Election officials blocked access to polling places to reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Pennsylvania law contains limitations of who may be in the polling place on Election day and the media is not one of those granted access in the statute.  In the decision, the court ruled that the media had no special right which would grant them access to the polling place. (for a more complete  summary and analysis of the case, please refer to Doug’s Election Academy blog.)

I mention this case because it represents an example of the type of ambiguity that is often inadvertently and unnecessarily introduced into election administration.  My “No Chads” definition of a “good” election argues that anything that adds ambiguity to an election undermines the credibility and “goodness” of an election.

Pennsylvania election officials were on sound legal footing when they made the decision to use the statute to ban the press from the polls.  An argument could also be made (and I am sure it was) that it made good administrative sense to limit the potential disruption of the polls by banning the press. 

So then, what is the problem and where is the ambiguity?  Election administrators understand that election statutes can be interpreted literally, permissively, restrictively or ignored altogether.   (One would be surprised how many outdated or contradictory code sections exist in every state’s election law which are ignored out of necessity.)  The need to interpret statutes based upon the facts of a given situation is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, expectation in the code and of a legislature’s intent.  Election administrators are granted a great deal of discretion in how they apply and implement the law.  Administrators often deny or are reluctant to acknowledge the degree of discretion they actually have preferring instead to defend their policies by claiming the ministerial nature of their jobs.  Put bluntly, we, as election administrators, often can and do hide behind statutes to defend our policy decisions rather than defend the policies on their merits.

There is a large body of political science and public administration literature that studies the different administrative frameworks and the role that discretion plays in elected and non-elected administrators performing the people’s business.  The classic example that analyzes the surprisingly broad discretion of public officials is Lipsky’s well-studied “Street-Level Bureaucracy.” (Lipsky 1980)  This scholarly understanding is sometimes at odds with the way administrators describe the way they perform their duties.  It is widely accepted among political scientists that discretion plays a large role in decision making by administrators which makes the question not “Do administrators have discretion?” but “How should administrators use the discretion they have?”  This latter question has been taken up as an ethical question for public servants by John Rohr. (Rohr 1998)  The ethics in the use of discretion will be taken up in a future post.

Voting is one of the archetypical communitarian rituals and practices that exist today in American society.  Across the broad nation, in multiple time zones, and on the same day of each even-numbered year; Americans trek to their local polling place to record their voice and fulfill their obligation to participate in governing the republic.  There is hardly a more public event and rite in our society (except maybe the Super Bowl?)  Because of the implications of an election for each citizen and for the republic, citizens want to know, and have a right to know, that the election was properly conducted.   The “Help America Vote Act” (HAVA) and the unprecedented activism, on the right and on the left, surrounding elections since 2000 are evidence enough of the universal desire to have confidence and transparency in our electoral processes.

The stated purpose of the voter identification requirement was to foster confidence that votes were being cast only by eligible voters and to prevent fraud.  There has been widespread concern that, while the requirement may prevent fraud, that it will also prevent eligible voters from exercising their franchise.  Each of these closely held perspectives is legitimate even though each represents a competing priority and objective.  The best resolution, from my experience, for such a situation is transparency.   In the absence of transparency, each faction is free to let their imaginations and conspiratorial theories run unrestrained by facts and reality.  Competing realities are the essence of ambiguity.  Transparency is a cure for ambiguity.  When competing groups both see the same reality at the same time ambiguity is eliminated.  When one side is denied access, suspicion, doubt and mistrust are the inevitable consequence.

The press (and media generally) has always been the “eyes and ears” of the American public even though, throughout our history, its objectivity and veracity is fairly questioned.  It would not be possible for all of us to linger and observe voting at our polling place to satisfy our need to be confident in the election.  Even if we could, our observations would be limited to a single location.  We rely on the media, with all their shortcomings, to make and report the observations on our behalf.  The press is our only practical window and portal for transparency.

I am not questioning why election officials in Pennsylvania used their discretion in interpreting the law to prevent the press from observing the polling places on Election day.  The point I hope to make is that lawful, justifiable and reasonable policy decisions made with the discretion enjoyed by administrators have consequences which can either enhance or undermine the “goodness” of an election.  Simply avoiding bad press, embarrassing disclosures or poll worker error does not make a “good” election.  This point is important for election officials to consider as they plan and administer elections.  The use of discretion by officials and its resulting transparency or ambiguity is the take away point for scholars and others seeking a metric for evaluating the “goodness” of elections.

Stay tuned.

www.qualitypublicperformance.com

Works Cited

Lipsky, Michael. Stree-level Bureaucracy: Dilemma of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 1980.

Rohr, John A. Public Service, Ethics and Constitutional Practice. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998.