You Won, Now What?

In the following Memorandum written to newly elected officials and their staffs by Taegan Goddard and Chris Riback, they lay out their ideas, as to what should be done by these officials to ensure that the needs of the people are met and that good government is established and adhered to. The points laid out in their memo are basic and realistic goals that all levels of government can follow, whether it’s on the Municipal, County or State level, or up to the Federal.

Taegan Goddard and Chris Riback are co-authors of “YOU WON – NOW WHAT? How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House” (Scribner, 1998). Goddard has served as a policy advisor to a U.S. Senator, Governor and State Treasurer. Riback has worked as a journalist for “60 Minutes,” ABC News, and the Associated Press.


TO: Newly Elected Officials and Their Staffs

FROM: Taegan Goddard and Chris Riback

Congratulations! The polls are closed, the votes were tallied and you came out on top! With the hard weeks of campaigning barely over, you must remember that the election was not the finish line, it’s the starting gun. The tough job of governing lies ahead.

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill may have said it best: “It’s easier to run for office than to run the office.”

The reality for today’s newly elected officials and their staffs is little different than the fiction portrayed in the 1972 film, The Candidate. Robert Redford starred as an idealist running for U.S. Senate. He never worried much about his campaign promises, because he never thought he would actually win. So when he did, the candidate turned to his manager and asked the question the campaign left him completely unprepared to answer: “What do we do now?”

Like Redford’s character, the winners of yesterday’s election must now put their campaign promises into action. It’s not easy because winning a campaign is very different than running a government. The elected and appointed officials swept into our governments after the elections may find it hard to get the simplest things accomplished. A different approach is needed.

“We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected, we’re forced to govern in prose,” former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once said.

Turning a poet into a novelist isn’t always easy. But that was our goal as we started to write YOU WON – NOW WHAT? How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House. We traveled from coast to coast — from Connecticut to California — interviewing officials at all levels of government to learn how they make our democracy work. From this extensive research, we identified the “Eight Traits of Highly Effective Public Officials.” We show what others have done. These are the rules of effective governing, rarely passed down from one generation of public servants to the next. This is the unwritten code of getting something done in government — and possibly making the history books.

Recognize government is not a business.
This concept, of course, runs contrary to nearly everything said, written or thought about government today. Officials at all levels of government and from both major political parties cloak themselves in this Holy Grail of political theory. Yet from the idea that citizens are much more than government’s customers (they are it’s owners) to the need for openness, government is not a business. Forcing government managers into private sector thinking usually causes more problems than it solves.

Rethink government’s main purpose.
If a government function can be run like a business, maybe it should be one. Congress regularly funds agencies headed by new public officials who find the day-to-day work goes beyond what they expected. With management teams swept in and out over the years, most agencies perform tasks they should not. Some government functions are more appropriate for the private sector, some overlap with other agencies and some are simply no longer relevant. By using up time and energy, these excesses keep the officials from doing their best job.

Know what they want to accomplish.
Little could sound more obvious. After all, who would run for office or accept appointment to an important government position without having a clear idea of what to achieve or how government should perform? Yet stop a random public official in the halls of the Capitol and too often you’ll find they lack what President George Bush called “the vision thing.”

Change the old guard, the old culture – or both.
Putting one’s stamp on a government agency – or even a legislative office – is never easy. Staff positions must be filled with people who share similar goals, even when too few vacancies are available. And new positions are difficult to create. The pay typically runs lower than comparable private sector jobs; and new public officials – lacking any similar experience – must negotiate the political appointments minefield, especially when higher-ups put on pressure to take their unqualified cousin for that last vacancy.

Take control of the bureaucracy.
Empowering bureaucrats is today’s conventional wisdom in making government work. It is also wrong. Instead, top new public officials must learn to empower themselves. They must liberate themselves from the multiple layers of bureaucracy and arcane rules that block their ability to take control of their agency. The elected or appointed public manager is most directly accountable to the citizens and, as a result, should have the most responsibility.

Juggle many balls at once.
If there is one supreme lesson of which nearly every public official wishes he or she had been reminded before taking office, it’s that time is short, and much of their time is taken by juggling crises. The crises can develop slowly, like a recession that decreases government revenues; or they can appear out of nowhere, like a scandal plastered on the front page of the morning newspaper. But make no mistake – they will come.

Manage their message.
A government official’s communication skills are frequently overlooked. They’re not taught in public administration programs or business schools, nor are they mentioned in the so-called management books. Yet regularly they make the difference between success and failure in public sector initiatives. If public officials do not manage their message, it will be managed for them.

Seek feedback from citizens.
American democracy, like most democracies worldwide, has evolved into a system called “representative government,” which, in plain language, means, “Elect me. I know better.” But times have changed. No longer is it sufficient to take office and check back four years later to see if you’ve done a good job.

Technology has changed government. Feedback is so easy to get, from constantly whirring fax machines to the lightening-quick responses of e-mail, that no public official can ignore it. They have a responsibility not just to put information out but to get input in return.

This does not mean that public servants should change voting positions with every new e-mail they receive. Without a core set of beliefs, any government official is worthless. It does mean, however, the concept of representative democracy has evolved, and officials ignore a willing public at great risk.

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Filed under 60 Minutes, ABC News, CBS News, Chris Riback, Gov. Mario Cuomo, government, House Speaker Tip O'Neill, memorandum, Taegen Goddard

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