Defining Democracy in the Public Workspace and Leading Change


Democracy is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Democratic ideals, including free speech, the right to vote and choice may be unequal in today’s modern democracy, but they do exist. With the observance of Veterans Day this week, perhaps these American ideals shine more than any other time of the year – except, perhaps, when we ourselves  as public servants are confronted with policy versus politics. Some critics argue that in a democracy like ours, vote-seeking incentives are high, leaving little to no room for broadly supported policy positions that meet the needs of constituents rather than serve political interests.

No doubt we see this play out time and time again with policy issues versus political interests in the U.S., e.g. immigration vs. border control; universal health care vs. choice in health care; protecting the environment vs. energy production. In America, the land of the free and home of the brave, political durability and policy changes influence democratic performance. And behind the scenes of what may be considered a landscape of hyper-partisan politics, public servants must navigate policies that are often arbitrary and compete with strategic implementation.

Indeed, democracy promotes opportunity and encourages healthy dissent. While the separation of powers may blur the responsibility of the government, democracies allow for citizens to be heard; we can vote out leaders or parties that we are no longer happy with. What remains true is that citizen action is required. Therefore, public administrators from local to national government settings must continue to work for equality, economic opportunity and social justice in spite of politics.

In my own work, I see how institutional knowledge, professional expertise and social responsiveness are valuable to navigating implementation roadblocks of enacted policies. Executive coaching experts say that public administrations should do the following when tasked with implementing new or revised policies:

  • Seek out the essential priorities within the policy and develop clear and consistent goals to work toward.
  • Understand that actions require good leadership; leaders must set the standard for employees not only through words but through actions.
  • Change in behavior takes time (not simply the enactment of a policy). To move an organization, leaders must adhere to clear, consistent communication.
  • Public servants must tease out the common underlying causes of social, economic, behavioral and environmental concerns in spite of political rhetoric.

My experience is not unique. I’m sure that each person reading this blog can provide example after example where politics trumps policy. The democratic challenge is that the bills become laws with bicameral support. The process hinges on the idea that constitutional democracy offers protection of majority rule and minority rights. But the challenge exists between powers and processes.

Often we see top-down legislative orders that seek an easy, public fix for political purposes. Yet, as government officials, we must work day in and day out to advance policies for our citizenry. Understanding that federalism is a shared system in which we are fundamentally grounded is a good first step – or friendly reminder. The process of government and meeting citizens’ needs is a valuable public good. Indeed, this arbitrary ambivalence may stem from the Founding Fathers who struggled with the idea of the self-centeredness of man or woman and the importance of self-government. This struggle is alive and well today as leaders use various tactics to achieve self-interest balanced with the interest of the populace.

Even today, contemporary federalism stands between political extremes – the aggregate of majority rules using the public pulpit and the loud voice of the pluralists with special interests at heart. Centralized, integrated politics is required for horizontal and vertical divisions of power. Therefore, as public administrators, we must work to remove artificial roadblocks, work cooperatively for the good of the citizens we serve and come together in the pursuit of common goals. It also helps to have passion, be champions for change, seek bottom-up solutions and provide concrete objectives and actions.

I leave you with Lewin’s model for change as a framework to ignite meaningful change in any public sector organization that encounters changes unlike other sectors:

      • establish a sense of urgency, ensure the need for change and build internal support;
      • develop a vision and strategy, provide a plan;
      • communicate the change, empower employees for action;
      • ensure top management support and commitment, create a guiding coalition;
      • build external support; partner with others as needed;
      • provide resources or secure them;
      • institutionalize change, anchor new approaches in culture; and
      • pursue comprehensive change, not just a quick fix.

Stacie Rivera ipart of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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