I think, as a local govie, I work more directly with elected officials than some of you. That distance from our law makers grows the further away from the local level you get. I would bet many of you working at a federal level very rarely interact with the legislators that set your policies. So here to help is my guide to working well with elected officials.
I interact with elected officials or their staff nearly every day. That could range from emails and memos, to face to face meetings, to presenting to them at meetings. In my 14 years with local government, I have worked with 15 different Commissioners representing five districts in the County. We depend on the elected officials to set our goals and priorities as they represent the people who elected them. No matter their political views, career aspirations or personal views, there are commonalities with most elected officials and understanding these can help you work well with them.
- Being an elected official is not easy. On one side, they have staff advocating for what they think is best for the community, on the other is the electorate wanting whatever it is they want. The elected official has to be the ultimate diplomat and balance the needs and wants of the few with the overall goals of the community. Typically, someone is not going to be happy and the elected official takes the brunt of the dissatisfaction.
- An elected official is an expert on everything. No really, they have to be! A newly elected local official is immediately expected to know everything about the government from the wastewater treatment plants, to the mass transit system, to the budget. The wheels of government (certainly at a local level) don’t stop turning to allow for a new hire orientation. The elected official is expected to jump straight in and make decisions on issues they have no idea existed before their election. If they don’t make the correct decision in the eyes of those who supported them, they are immediately in the wrong. They depend on you to help them transition into this world of government and this can help set the tone of your future relationship with them.
- What seems like the smallest item can mushroom into a huge issue. The elected official may spend the majority of their time dealing with what is, in the scheme of things, an insignificant problem. But, in the eyes of that constituent, that item is the most important thing to them at that time. This could be something like graffiti at a bus shelter, high grass in a median or a street light that isn’t working. It may disillusion many an elected official in that they are not “making a difference” but in the eyes of that one citizen they help – they are a superstar!
- You, as the govie, are not going to always agree with the elected official or the decisions they make. You are not always going to have similar priorities or similar political opinions. You do, however, have a responsibility to provide accurate information, technical expertise and sound, impartial recommendations. Elected officials just want to hear the truth. I think that is fundamentally the key to working well with them. Don’t sugarcoat the issues, don’t try and spin issues or only give them half the story. Just give them the facts honestly and impartially to help them make their decisions.
- Develop a poker face (for me, that’s a work in progress!). There are those times when the elected official will surprise you or they will start bantering between each other in a way that makes you feel like you are at a tennis match. They are outgoing and outspoken by nature and sometimes reacting to that is not good. Having that poker face and using it will help you maintain your cool when you are in those situations.
Finally, respect the office. You may not agree with the elected official and that’s okay but, for the most part, they are committed to working to improve the system. They have spent time and money, impacted their families and their careers to run for office. Yes, like any profession, there are a few bad apples out there but they are few and far between and the majority are there for the betterment of the people who elected them. Try thinking like them, putting yourself in their shoes and follow the tips above to help them, and you, be successful.