Together with my colleagues from the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida and the Consensus Resource Center at Florida State, I just finished conducting a training program for nearly a score of elected city and county officials. These men and women have responsibility for setting transportation policy priorities in their regions of Florida. Based on the feedback we received that weekend and since, the program was very successful.
One of the goals of the MPOAC Institute is to encourage Metropolitan Planning Organization board members to ask questions, and to empower them with the ability to ask good questions and to recognize reasonable answers. Because questions often are the most important tool in the elected officials’ arsenal.
Councilmembers, commissioners and mayors face the extraordinary challenge of giving direction to large, multifaceted organizations in which, more often than not, they have never served in any professional capacity. Often these local elected officials will have some expertise in one or a few areas of public policy (whether by education, profession or avocation), but rarely do they have it across the full spectrum of services cities and counties provide.
One shouldn’t fault this fact. The vast majority of a city’s or county’s professional staff lack that kind of expertise, too. Not because they aren’t good at what they do, but because what cities and counties do is such an amazing range of things that very few people acquire both the breadth and depth of knowledge and experience necessary to know it all well.
But while a city’s professional leadership, for the most part, will lead where they have specialized knowledge, councilmembers, commissioners and mayors must lead without such knowledge. They must draw upon other resources, relying on broader principles rather than deep knowledge to make their very public decisions.
One of the keys to doing this well is the habit of asking questions.
Questions reveal to the presenter that we are listening and processing what is being said. They also require the presenter to devote some time and effort to a particular area of concern to the elected official (and, likely, to the public he or she represents). Good questions make the presenter pause, and consider, and offer good reasons for doing what the presenter is urging should be done.
In giving such reasons, many advocates (whether government staff, community activists, lobbyists or others) end up revealing more than they had planned, offering vital clues to the underlying purposes and consequences of proposals that aren’t entirely transparent. Those revelations may lead to greater understanding, or greater opposition, or both.
What they nearly always lead to is a better process.
I often tell elected officials that they need to talk more, not less. Such a suggestion flies in the face of the popular stereotype that politicians talk too much. It’s also counter to everyone’s interest if the official tends to like the sound of his or her own voice too much.
But when officials speak by asking questions, and when they listen to the answers, they invite the public to do the same. All of us benefit when the reasons for government action or inaction are clear. That clarity arises from the right questions posed at the right time and in the right way.
Such questioning is a challenge to advocates, whoever they may be, that can be summed up in a simple phrase:
Give me a reason.
Good reasons, drawn out by good questions, lead to good policy.