Public Service Tip No. 3: Remember that You're Expendable


This is part three in an ongoing series of tips for those entering public service.

Sometime after my resignation I was talking to someone who had considerable experience working with government at various levels. Before I'd said much at all about the circumstances that led to my resignation, he looked at me and said "Usually its the Chief of Staff." I asked what he was talking about and he replied that usually when the Governor needs to take an unpopular stand that he can't afford to take the heat on, the chief of staff takes the fall. The chief of staff is expendable, but the Governor is not.

I think this is good advice for anyone from the private sector contemplating public service. If you're on the Governor's staff there may be times when you're called on to take the heat for something and you need to understand that doing so is part of the job. A Governor's office is usually juggling hundreds of competing issues and priorities at any given time. The Governor usually doesn't have the luxury of ignoring any of them. Managing these issues, making good and proper decisions, and then finding a strategy to bring them about almost always involves tradeoffs and compromises. At times, you may have to fall on your sword to make these tradeoffs happen and that's part of the job as well.

One of the most important lessons to be learned by anyone contemplating a stint in public service is that everything is political. Coming from an academic background, I was not unfamiliar with petty politics; someone once said, politics is worst where it matters least and that certainly applies to university politics. Public service, however, is a whole new ballgame.

You may fall on your sword for something that has nothing to do with your program or priorities; this is call "collateral damage." Collateral damage often occurs when two politicians or groups of politicians start to battle for public opinion in the press. In this situation, you can easily find yourself caught in the political crossfire and used by one side or the other as a pawn or hostage in the battle.

In Utah, for example, the Legislature and the Governor have been having a year long battle over the budget, water, education, and just about everything else. Governor Leavitt, wisely, has refused to tell anyone whether or not he'll run for a fourth term in 2004. There are more than a few legislators who would like to be Governor and don't feel like waiting until 2008. Since they're all Repulicans, if the Governor runs again they're going to have to challenge a very popular incumbent (71% approval rating) in the primary. They figure they've got two years to soften him up and weaken his approval rating. Consequently, they challenge him at every turn and on almost any issue. Leavitt is smart and skillfully weilds the advantage of the Governor's office, however, and thus usually ends up riding in on a white horse, leaving the Legislature to a hobsons choice that frequently involves cutting a popular program or raising taxes.

As a result of this game of one upmanship, the Utah Legislature has started to poke the Governor in the eye anywhere else they can---regardless of the consequences. One of Leavitt's judicial nominee's was recently mauled by the Senate over nothing more than the fact that they were feeling frisky and wanted to show the Governor they were boss. In ten years, they've never done anything but pro forma approve judicial nominees. I've heard what happened this time described as "obscene" by some pretty seasoned politicos. This man, who has wanted to be a judge all his life, now will never be. Collateral damage.

I have no doubt that the currect "uproar" in the legislature over hiring in IT and the audits that resulted from it were part of this game. The legislature has no IT agenda and they really didn't care to understand what was going on (I tried to talk to them on dozens of occasions). Understanding the facts would have only made the job of taking jabs at the Governor more difficult. They had an agenda that had nothing to do with IT or hiring and they carried out. I was a convenient target. Collateral damage.

As CIO, I understood fully that I was expendable. This isn't a lesson I had to learn. I always considered myself part of the Governor's staff and was happy to serve him in whatever way I could. I believe that Mike Leavitt is perhaps the most capable public executive in the US today, at any level. I was and still am very loyal to the man and if my actions helped advance his program, in or out of IT, then I'm satisfied I did what was required of me and I happy to have done it.