One familiar path to journalistic success is to break a story about public corruption. Typically, these stories focus on some form of influence peddling, whether it has been the explicit bribe or the subtler securing of undue access to decision makers.
Both sides (public officials and those who seek action by the government) have been known to describe the experience as intimidation. Public officials are alleged to have threatened citizens and businesses with public action against their interests if they don’t pay up. Lobbyists and major “players” have been said to create nearly insurmountable barriers to political success in the path of political aspirants who won’t dance to their tune.
Citizens don’t have trouble understanding these dynamics. Even if we have not felt the coercive power of a boss, client, colleague or significant other in our own adult lives, we’ve read or watched compelling accounts of particularly tragic instances in the lives of others. And most of us can remember, if we care to, the bully on the playground or in the lunchroom who made either our lives or the lives of some other individual daily experiences of misery and fear.
So we support laws and other reforms that make those corrupt individuals play nice . . . or make them pay.
Underpinning all of this is the notion that our leaders should be disinterested.
Of course, we don’t mean that they shouldn’t care what happens. We want our public leaders to care deeply about the public’s business. We just believe (correctly) that they should set aside their own business in order to act in the interest of the public. In this sense, we wish for them to be disinterested, to pay no attention to their own financial or political interest in pursuing the public good.
This all makes sense, but I think it may not go far enough as a guide to public leaders.
Our interests go well beyond the ones that show up in bank balances or in the office we attain. There also is an interest we have in seeing our plans come to fruition.
Being interested in seeing an idea become a plan, then a project, then a reality, is what has inspired many a legislator to persist, through agonies of committee meetings and endless rounds of negotiation and amendment, to see a bill become a law. It is what has inspired many a mayor to put in the long hours, line up the funds, overcome opposition and sweat the small stuff to see an arts center or athletic facility or new development rise from the ground.
Such interest is commendable . . . but may I qualify that? May I suggest that our interest in seeing one of our plans come to fruition can at times overwhelm our better judgment and obscure our vision of the greater good?
Many years ago, a friend and fellow local elected official (not from my town) had a vision for a part of his community. It was a good vision, one that probably would have been viewed as an enhancement to the community by most if not all fair observers.
He worked hard. He put in the long hours. And he ran into stiff opposition from some property owners whose sense of their own property interests put them at odds with his vision. Their defense of their interests cast a heavy shadow over his dream.
So he took some steps, like targeted code enforcement, specifically designed to compel those property owners to yield to his vision.
Instead, they filed complaints that led to investigations and, ultimately, to my friend’s conviction for misuse of his authority.
Had my friend prevailed (legitimately or otherwise), he would not have ended up one dollar richer than he was. He would not have been more likely to get re-elected than he already was. It wasn’t that kind of headline project.
But it was his project. And he was deeply interested in seeing it become a reality. Too deeply.
This is the sense of “disinterest” that I think is rarely acknowledged. The standard of good public service isn’t that we got our bill passed, or our stadium built, or our road improvement completed. It is that, in our time in office, the public was heard and was served.
We can be champions, and should be, for what we believe is good public policy. But at the very end of the day, our interest should be in the public good and the public will, not in our vision of those mysterious things. Because our personal vision can be clouded, in particular by our interest in our own ideas.
In this sense, we need to cultivate a healthy disinterest in the specific products of policy making and implementation. Of course we care. But we should care more about honoring the process and the people for whom it exists than we should care about getting our projects accomplished.