October 13, 2020

The City, Inc. board of directors

This post owes its inspiration, as so many posts do, to a tweet from patio11. I have tremendous respect for Patrick, and enjoy every conversation I have with him, but in one particular case I think he’s wrong, and he’s wrong in a subtle way that took me a long time to understand, because it goes against our idea of what an elected official in the US does, especially at the local level.

I’m going to put this in corporate tech-ish business terms, because that’s my bias and most of my readership: Your elected officials aren’t individual contributors. They aren’t even management. They are the Board of Directors.

This might seem obvious, but I really want to play it out. In most municipalities, especially those with a weak Mayor / strong City Manager government, your City Council or Board of Supervisors aren’t even members of the executive team for your city. They have, effectively, the same powers as large corporate boards do: They can vote on policy initiatives, they can authorize spending money, and they can hire or fire the CEO, who in your city is probably the City Manager.

Where I live, in Alameda, we have strong CEO / weak Chair of the Board governance, by which I mean a strong City Manager / weak Mayor system. The reporting chain for the City Staff, who are the people actually spending the money and enacting the programs and doing the work that affects us as citizens directly, goes up to the City Manager. That City Manager wields enormous power in how this money is spent and who the City is hiring to do the spending. The City Manager is hired, reviewed, and fired by the City Council. The City Council cannot themselves hire or fire any City Staff, and they themselves cannot spend one dollar of the City’s money directly.

Why does all this matter? Because it means that the qualities we look for in our elected officials should be management qualities and values qualities, more than effectiveness or expertise as an Individual Contributor. The job of a City Council member is a management job. When a candidate says they deserve our vote because they’re going to get things done” at City Hall (or the Statehouse, or the Capital) we should remember how they will actually get things done: by suggesting policies, and building coalitions with their fellow elected officials to pass policies, and by hiring or firing the Chief Executive.

As an aside, the one way that government differs from most corporate structures is there are often multiple Chief Executives who can be hired or fired. For example, the City Manager, the Chief of Police, and the Fire Chief are all hired, fired, and reviewed by the City Council. In this case, those three departments operate like three different companies with the same board and funding source, so the analogy still holds, I think.

For me, this means that it often isn’t in my best interests to vote for the person who completely aligns with my values, even if such a person who isn’t me could exist. It also means it’s not in my best interests to vote for the most incredibly effective, deeply expert technocrat. My winning strategy, and I suggest the winning strategy for most of us, is to vote for people who:

  1. Mostly align with our values
  2. Have a demonstrated capacity to learn new information and make good decisons based on that
  3. Have a good head around managing people and collaborating with peers

Candidates who have a Master’s in Public Policy or Public Adminstration are great. But in the same way I’d hire an engineer from a bootcamp with seven years of experience over a freshly-graduated Master’s, I’ll take the activist who’s been coalition building and running an NGO for a decade over the first-time-running technocrat every day.

When you vote for a representative, at the State, Local, or Federal level, you’re voting for the Board of Directors of the organization that controls where you live, in a way you can very rarely vote at work. Vote for the Board you wish you had.

politics management elections

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