Public Service Tip No. 6: Laugh at the Jester


In ancient times, the jester was a fellow who entertained the king and other nobles at the court. The jester had another, more important, purpose, however. The jester was one who was "without offense," meaning that they could tell the King and Noblemen the truth and thus advise and critique them where others could not. The catch was that they had to do it through jokes. In that way they often wielded much more power than their colorful costumes and humor would otherwise suggest.

In modern times, we don't have jesters, but we have a group of people who have a similar function: legislative staff. When most people think of their government, they picture their legislators up at night, studying issues and drafting legislation. In truth, legislators do very little of that. The legislative staff does most of this work and keeps things running.

How much power legislative staff wields depends largely on how involved legislators are in an issue. For example, if you have a lazy committee chair, then they largely turn the operation of the committee, including the tenor and tone of the business over to the staff. Other chairs take an active role and are clearly running the show. Since the chairs of committees are largely appointed based on politics, rather than skill or aptitude, this can happen fairly frequently. This whole problem is exacerbated by the fact that in most states the legislature is part time. Thus, the staff has considerable time to cause trouble while they're left without adult supervision.

Occasionally, despite their protestations to the contrary, a particular member of the staff will inject their personal biases into the process and work overtime to make sure their ideas on how things should work are the ones being heard. Legislative staff are in a particularly powerful position in this regard and if there is no legislator minding the store, they can wield considerable power.

In Utah, for example, there is one particular staff member who believes that he is the one true source of legislative intent on all matters related to information technology. He would constantly show up to meetings with his code book in hand and try to drive the meeting. He saw me as power hungry and reckless because I had a different interpretation of the statue and was trying to move IT in the direction the Governor wanted. He did everything he could to create roadblocks for any initiatives we'd undertake. He was very successful and the taxpayers of Utah are the losers.

The job of a public sector manager dealing with an overzealous legislative staff member is made especially difficult by the fact that you have a goal you're trying to accomplish. They have no real goals or objectives to accomplish other than the daily tasks that haunt their world: finish this piece of legislation or complete this budget. Very few of them have any management experience at all and they have little understanding of what it means to actually be responsible for making something work. This makes it difficult to get them to understand your goals and, especially your motivations.

If you can make friends with the legislative staff and get them to ally themselves with your agenda, then you're way ahead. If you can't, you have to insulate yourself from their effects by cozying up the legislature directly. This is harder to do, but quite effective when you succeed. I never did manage it.