The Costs of Public Collaboration

The Costs of Public Collaboration

Leaders in governments that are higher up the federal hierarchy have a tendency to point fingers at leaders on lower levels, accusing them of being parochial and of failing to see the big picture. It is as if serving at the state or national level produces an inevitable enlightenment that we local mortals cannot achieve. This behavior is perhaps most common among heads of administrative departments (like Education, Transportation, or Environmental Protection) and chief executives (governors and presidents). State and national legislators, after all, exhibit the same parochialism and myopia allegedly suffered by local officials. All that changes is the size of the home turf one seeks to protect or enhance. The basic motivation (taking care of one’s own) remains largely unchanged.

But even heads of executive agencies, when examined more closely, suffer from this protective instinct. While their geographic perspective may be statewide or national, their programmatic priorities usually are defined by the department they lead. Suggest that a program should be reduced in scope, eliminated, or transferred to another agency, and the parochial demons will come out in force.

Decades ago, as a very naïve research assistant interning in the U.S. Department of Commerce, I saw these demons up close. It was very early in the Carter administration, and the president had announced his intention (in light of the shocks to the national economy produced by the OPEC oil embargoes) to create a Department of Energy.

Of course, developing policies and programs related to energy wasn’t anything new. Various federal departments (including Commerce) were involved in energy issues as a part of their broader missions.

What Carter wanted to do was to focus greater federal attention and resources on the energy policy domain. Whether it was a good idea or not, it certainly wasn’t an unreasonable one.

Precisely because every other agency head understood that energy would be a priority, every other agency head was loath to let go of their piece of the energy pie. They each wanted a share of the additional resources that were likely to flow to this priority area of presidential concern.

And so it was that this lowly intern and the high-powered PhDs for whom I worked were diverted for two weeks from our important work on business migration to make a case, based on the impact of coal mines on the commerce of states like Montana, for keeping certain energy-related programs in the Department of Commerce.

The first and only question we were tasked to answer wasn’t, “Does it make sense to keep this program in our department?” The first and only question was, “How do we justify keeping this program in our department?” What was best for the nation wasn’t ever asked; that wasn’t our job. Our job was to help the boss protect our own.

The instinct to preserve one’s own isn’t limited to public employees and public officials. The CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are not renowned for taking their eyes off the bottom line for the sake of the national economy or the needs of the poor. Best business practices generally are defined by what best serves the short- and/or long-term interests of the company (specifically its value and profitability). It’s what most stockholders expect business leaders to attend to, which makes attending to those interests the fundamental act of CEO self-preservation.

The major difference, in fact, between private sector and public sector leaders is that we, the public, tend to believe that our public officials should be thinking beyond the parochial, beyond the narrowly self-interested, even beyond things like the benefit of a particular policy or program to one constituency. We don’t criticize the leadership of Volkswagen for trying to turn a larger profit; we criticize them for doing it dishonestly. However, we do criticize public agency department heads and elected public officials for placing a greater priority on their professional or organizational advancement, or on the wishes of their constituents, than on the public good.

The problem is, when public officials think beyond “their own,” they may find that their own don’t appreciate the thought. In fact, my previous comment perhaps should be modified to make this point clearly. We expect other people’s elected officials to place a great priority on the broad public good, while we expect our elected officials to protect our own. Should waste in the budget of the Department of Defense be reduced by eliminating unnecessary military installations? Absolutely . . . as long as it’s not the installation in our town. And so on.

Herein lies the daunting cost of public collaboration. Local leaders are elected by specific local constituencies. Those constituencies usually evaluate the performance of their local elected officials on the direct costs to them of the public services the government provides, and on the direct benefits to them in terms of the services they receive. Tip that equation into an inequality for the sake of the greater good beyond the immediate local boundaries, and one often pays a price in hate mail, angry testimony before council, hostile letters to the editor, and the sense that one’s seat almost certainly is not safe.

Yet we expect those same local leaders to see the big picture and do the right thing.

It’s a tough job . . . one for which many of us have been or are ill-prepared.

Yet in this period of economic, social and environmental challenges that have no respect at all for the boundaries of our jurisdictions, something more than protecting our own is required. And it is possible to bring that something more to the table.

What is required? Vision, openness to innovation, courage and a healthy portion of practical political skills to navigate both the formation of regional compacts and the challenges of local politics.

Next: Practical Politics for Regional Problems