Older citizens stay engaged. They rise early and handle their domestic business before lunch. They vote and make attempts to stay involved and informed. As a staffer at the Florida Public Service Commission it didn’t take me long to realize the political optics generated by a couple bus loads of senior citizens flooding the hearing room in order to place a little pressure on the panel of five commissioners contemplating increasing rates on water and sewer or electricity services.
I participated later on in my career as a communications strategist by helping to organize letter writing campaigns and getting groups together to appear in that very hearing room on the issue of energy conservation in Florida. No government agency likes press that it cannot control. The agency takes comfort in the linear when it comes to the public and information. The agency makes a decision and announces that decision with its crafted rationale to a press that is either sitting in the hearing room or sitting next to a fax machine or these days, watching online. Public participation, engagement, and demonstrations only serve to divert the public administrator’s policy direction, a diversion she cannot afford.
Let there be no mistake that as a public administrator one of your primary tasks is narrative control. I can recall while on staff with a local government agency in Northern Virginia being called into the department head’s office to discuss a survey the agency was constructing. During the conversation the agency head made it clear that it was our goal with this survey not to find out what the public thought but to tell them what to think. This reality about narrative control hit me like a rock and I admit it took some energy to keep my jaw from dropping and staying open. The public administrator must keep the public in check.
The public administrator cannot afford the false separation between politics and public administration. The public administrator is buffeted by politics. She has an elected or governor-appointed, legislature-confirmed official making demands from the top and an ill-informed but vocal public making demands from the bottom. From the inside, she has the need for professional and personal survival. Her advancement, career, and yes, retirement are at stake along with her need to leave a legacy, especially as a career bureaucrat.
And whether we admit or not, the legacy is important. It feeds our egos. I remember representing a client before the Commission 18 years after I had left. It was a bit of a homecoming but more interesting was the deference I received from five commissioners who never worked with me but acknowledged my history with the agency. It went a long way during that representation.
To survive and thrive in the government eco-system, the public administrator must control information in-flows and out-flows. These flows are best controlled via expertise. To ensure your credibility and influence over both the elected/appointed decision-maker and the consumer/citizen/taxpayer, you have to mold their perception of an issue. You have to understand their fears and craft the narrative in a way that mitigates those fears. Where their fears are allayed, only then can you pursue public policy that bests mitigates the other risks to the political economy; because you took care of the first risk, the human risk.