Value of public service experience

I'd like to invite comments about the value of public service experience, specifically including elected office, in evaluating candidates.

Like a lot of policy-oriented voters, I put policy first. A candidate who is fundamentally unacceptable in the areas of most importance to me (such as environment, health care, equal opportunity) gets disqualified. But after that, I start to look heavily at both indications of commitment to the public's interest generally, and experience in public office specifically.

This last criterion applies particularly to candidates for "higher" office--positions not generally considered entry-level elected posts--offices like Congress and statewide elected executive positions. Yes, I know that folks love "new ideas" and fresh faces generally. But really--elected representatives at that level are in full-time positions which demand specific knowledge and skill sets in order to be handled effectively. Governing and legislating are scientific studies, in which skill and experience count for a lot. Naivete is not refreshing in a representative, just frustrating. A candidate who doesn't understand what a position can do or how to do it is no good to anyone.

Experience can translate across professions, but not necessarily. Even suble differences can be crucial. A great military officer might make a lousy police officer. A wonderful teacher might get lost in running a business. A superb fundraiser may be clueless in managing one of the programs he/she raises money to support.

Peformance in elected office is one of the most effective predictors of effectiveness in another subsequent office. Seeing how an individual responds to the needs and demands of constituents and special interests tells me a lot more than listening to how that person claims they will respond.

In addition, the pressures of the public spotlight of high elected position are unique. Some folks, even nice people in everyday life, simply don't handle the excessive attention and sense of power well.

John Edwards was a classic cautionary tale here. An outstanding saleman (as a skilled trial lawyer), he quickly fell to the sirens of power and attention. The results were not pretty at all. Edwards had never served in public office before he ran for U.S. Senate. He even showed early promise as a Senator, and always talked a convincing and seemingly passionate line, but he lacked the discipline and character to stick with doing the job for which he campaigned. He squandered his potential with an egotistical pursuit of the presidency--and proved he couldn't handle the acclaim and attention even there.

We'd have been far better served by a person of Edwards' abilities, who had first been tested (and "acclimated" if you will) by a turn as a state legislator, a mayor, or some similar testing post. Responsible public appointed posts like boards and commissions, when they demand real skill, knowledge, and dealing with competing interests, can be almost as instructive.

Among progressive activists, public service experience rarely seems to enter into the discussion of candidates' appeal. For those of us who actually believe in the power of government to do public good in a democracy, shouldn't we consider that kind of experience to be important?


Tough to respond to this, Dan

You have eloquently given your point of view on the question. But, your point of view comes from your experiences and, I am sure, in some ways comes from believing that being someone that has past public service credentials, it should be taken into consideration in determining the worth of various candidates.

The truth is, we have many politicians in various offices in local, county, state and national offices that have a great history of public service both in political office and in other ways. Some are very good elected officials, some are not.

Choosing an individual to represent you has to come from what you believe about him/her with regard to their qualifications in addition to their moral beliefs and, of course, their stance on various issues that are near and dear to the voter's heart.

Again, it is difficult to put how much importance a prospective candidate's past public service/past public offices held is when it comes down to which level you pull at the end of the day.

Just one factor

You're absolutely right that my perspective on this is heavily influenced by my own experience. Having served on governing boards (appointed and elected), I've seen how very different that experience is compared to the work I've done in other settings. I've also seen very good folks who've done well in other settings disappoint me in elected or appointed spots.

There are very many politicians with good-looking resumes who are total turkeys when it comes to effective public service. Their experience in having held public office does not predispose me to favor them. But, in most of those cases, I'm very glad to have had the chance to watch them fumble their chance in a lower-level spot rather than as president, governor or U.S. senator. And in other cases, seeing someone shine in the entry spot has led me to realize "we've gotta get that person to run for the big spot--they're great".

It's a comfort knowing that the performer you're thinking of hiring has a good record in summer stock or dinner theater before you cast them for the lead on Broadway.

Dan Besse

In the private sector, having

In the private sector, having actual relevant experience for the job in question is almost always a prerequisite. That experience doesn't guarantee success, nor does lack of experience guarantee failure. It's a matter of probability, no?

I'm sure there's a dissertation in here somewhere!

Are there "costs" to having experience? Can outside thinking drive innovation, or is the system too insular?

I should add

thanks for bringing this up. A convincing argument, especially the summer stock reference.

Shall we shortcut this?

Kenneth Lewis: Run for something else first.

Cal Cunningham: One term and done in the state Senate before not knowing how to avoid being redistricted out of a seat by his own party. Extra credit for trying to kiss up to the power brokers in the Senate, but being so "driven" as to walking away from a tough reelection after realizing he wasn't really part of the club before paying his dues.

Elaine Marshall: Won election and reelection to legislative and executive branches of government after citizens and colleagues have seen her in different environs.

Is this where this post is headed?


Broader applicability

It's fair to say that this question is in the forefront of my mind because the ongoing Democratic Senate primary contest is a case in which it's relevant. However, I think it's of much broader applicability, and tried to couch it in general terms.

In the current case, Ken has been active in politics, primarily as a fundraiser for other candidates. I don't think that's the best exerience for a candidate to draw on in office himself, but it does give careful observers an opportunity to look into what kind of candidates he's been supporting. To me, his lack of public office experience gives him a fairly high hurdle to overcome in a field of other good candidates with that experience. Not absolutely insurmountable, but high enough that he'd have to be enormously more impressive than the alternatives to win my vote. And certainly Elaine's multiple statewide wins are more impressive than Cal's one district win, if other important factors are roughly equal.

Again, though, the point of my post is not to undermine Ken or Cal, but to encourage progressives generally to consider a factor that I think tends to be undervalued by our side. I believe we should encourage good folks to run first for local and district offices. Watch them there, and encourage strong performers to step up to the broader stage.

By doing so, we develop a better team, are likely to experience fewer unpleasant surprises, and most importantly get more done.

Dan Besse

I think there may be something to this

idea. I'm currently a grad student in a Public Administration program and my professors & textbooks certainly seem to highlight the different goals of & know-how required to manage in the public sphere. But there does have to be some balance between factors in deciding which candidates to vote for. And I wouldn't think the notion of needing prior public service counts so strongly at the local level, otherwise there are no entry points into public service.

Here is a perfect example, Jake

In the 2nd Congressional District in NC, the current congressman is Bob Ethridge. He has been an excellent congressman and to date, has not succumbed to narcissism that I can see. Right now, republican Jay Johnson is coming from the other side against Ethridge. His "credentials" are 1). U.S. Army Vet 2). Fox News contributor 3). conservative author. Nothing more.

The selection (except for voters that just vote republican regardless...) is a no brainer.

The question is, Dan: What's their narcissism potential?

No sense quibbling about experience. Proven past performance is an indicator of future success. I wonder,'tho, if there isn't some characteristic that indicates how far a particular elected official (or business executive) can rise without becoming so narcissistic that they become a threat or destructive force rather than an asset.

I've seen it happen again and again...some really nice, capable person gets elevated to a significant position of authority over others and soon begins to believe they are infallible and all-knowing and so on....and the power of their position allows (and perhaps somehow compels) them to go to "the dark side."

I have little doubt that many elected officials who could now accurately be described as feckless, preening schmucks originally came to the table with desirable skills and experience. What we failed to assess before we elected them was their potential to our expense...because of their predisposition to self-admiration.

Stan Bozarth

Good question

and one in which we can probably look to a person's past behavior more generally for clues. The advantages to public service posts as a guide are that the behavior is more visible, and more likely to show us how personality traits affect judgment on tough public policy decisions.

Dan Besse

Beauty contest v. capability

I was recently talking to a "political operative" friend of mine, and I said, "There are two aspects to an individual in politics: Whether they make a good candidate or a good elected official." She responded, "Yes, and we know only the first one is what people care about."

Not sure I liked hearing that. But not sure how I can argue about it without coming off as an intellectual elitist.

I guess it reminds me of past elections, whether it's for the state legislature, city council, county commissioner, etc., where it's hard to really pin down what the elected official has "done" (other than talking points, taking credit for everything that's happened in the state/city/county, regardless of their personal contribution to such), but "gosh darn it" everyone likes them so much and ... they're so nice and I know they're family and ... well, I always see them and we say hi and ... so that's why I'm voting for them again!

Do we get the best results that way? But, we all like to support our friends or "friends." Sometimes we don't even know where they may stand on the issues we care about...but we really like them, so that seems to suffice for a reason to support them. I've been guilty of that on several occasions, but if I sense that is the case, I usually try to throw some pragmatic, "so what would you do about X and Y, specifically?" to see what the response is. Which, no candidate can really predict what they'll do, but such an answer gives you insight into how they foresee their performance once elected. But I think we really do have to consider (and I include myself) why we really support individual candidates.

What I get from Dan's post is not "candidates MUST have elected experience!" Rather, I see him stating that, if progressives truly believe in issues X, Y, and Z, or if progressives believe that the people they vote for should have a certain general ideology, it's easier to measure such things from a public record. And, I'm glad Dan alluded to this, it just doesn't mean ELECTED experience, but also various appointed positions in the various board and commissions in all levels of our government. This shows a deep commitment on an individual's part to affecting their community and not just "going for the gold" of public election.

It's a lot of food for thought. Thanks the prompt, Dan.

My take, Phillip

Candidates present the side of themselves that play to the majority general attitude of the electorate in whatever city or county or district they want to represent. If it is a "Red" district, then the candidate that wants to win will make himself/herself out to lean right. If a candidate is running in a "blue" district, then they will "be more liberal". It is not actually about the truthfullness of candidates, it is about winning. In the South, who does not know that most voters lean conservative? So, democratic candidates run as being "conservative democrats". And, if they want to keep their jobs, that is how they will vote on issues presented in congress/senate. I am not saying that is justified or correct or how it should be, I am just saying it is how it is. Tough to argue.

You are saying exactly what is truthful in what is happening in our political environment today. We support those we like and those that are our friends and those that we associate with locally and we truthfully have zero clue what impact those politically offices above the local/county level have on us. We can no longer afford to vote for people just based on political association. It is FAR more important than that.

More thoughts on experience

This post has given me a lot to think about ... in particular with regard to differences among parties. Given their general hatred of government, you'd think Republicans wouldn't care much at all about the quality of candidate experience. Why bother voting for someone who knows the ropes when your number one goal is to cut the ropes?

GOP vs. government

It's even worse than that. As the controlling element of the Republican party has become steadily more anti-government, there has been an ongoing degradation in the quality of candidates they can attract. Why would a capable, constructive individual volunteer for a job he/she despises? If government is the enemy, the only people looking for roles in government are the second-raters who can't succeed elsewhere (G.W. Bush) and the fanatics whose purpose is to tear things down (Karl Rove).

People who can and want to do a good job of managing government are actively pushed away by today's Republican party dynamic. In that process, successful experience in government is actively a bad thing.

Even the traditional Republican strength in candidates, the successful business leader with solid financial management ability, is driven away. For someone who likes to build, there's little appeal to a job in deconstruction. And if current GOP financial policy looks like class warfare to progressives, it seems like tooth-fairy economics to real conservatives.

Dan Besse

Great post. Drew me out of my

Great post. Drew me out of my months-long lurking mode. (Or is it just that for once in my life I'm not working this week?)

I think almost all voters want to know a candidate's experience. If the candidate has never won an election before, then we're forced to consider other forms of experience and guess about how they might transfer. But certainly most people understand that previous experience in office is the best predictor of future performance. Unfortunately, we don't always have experienced progressive candidates. So we often have to choose between experience and values.

My related question is whether or not policy experience at one level of elected office transfers well to another. I understand that there are public service experiences that will transfer. But will serving on the county commission prepare you to serve in the general assembly? What about in an executive leadership role on the council of state? At the federal level? To some extent, the issues you deal with at the different levels are very different. And serving as a member of a body is different from serving in an executive role.

Good points

about whether experience transfers well between offices. In part, it will depend on the nature of the office. A legislative role, whether at the county commission, state legislature, or Congressional level involves similar skills. Naturally, the scope and pressure ratchet up as you go, but I believe from observation that the experiences are similar in kind, if not in degree.

I don't think that executive talent necessarily translates to legislative skill, or vice versa. It's no coincidence that former legislators do better as president in negotiations with Congress, and former governors--at least SKILLED former governors--have a natural advantage in running federal agencies. Typically, I like to look at governors for presidential candidates, all else being equal (which it rarely is, of course).

However, any elected post of general responsibility (that is, not something highly specialized like clerk of court) gives us the chance to observe how well a person follows through on campaign commitments, deals with constituents and interest group pressures, and handles public controversies and trust.

The public record available on office holders will vary widely in depth and utility. The more there is available, the more comfortable I am with forming a solid opinion of the candidate's capacities and reliability.

Dan Besse

Then again ...

The reason I never liked John Edwards was because he used junk science to win cases, and because of a ambitious narcissism. Had nothing to do with his experience or lack thereof. For example, he cast his most important vote in the Senate (Iraq War authorization), based on presidential calculus.

Also, the Edwards case is one of the reasons why I'm not a policy-oriented voter. Sure, if a candidate isn't in favor of LGBT equality or public education, I'm not going to support them - but public officials have to do so much more than make policy. Edwards hit all the right policy notes during the presidential campaign, but being an elected official is so much more than being "liberal" or "moderate" or "progressive." I care much more about whether or not a candidate has the tools to do the job, a record of honesty, and a commitment to open governance. If they don't have those, I don't care how much experience they have.

I always wanted to be the avenging cowboy hero—that lone voice in the wilderness, fighting corruption and evil wherever I found it, and standing for freedom, truth and justice. - Bill Hicks


Ah, but Oliver--how do you tell whether they have the tools, the honesty, and the commitment if they have no public record to examine for the telltale signs?

Happy new year!

Dan Besse

Who is qualified??

Dan, I am always a little suspicious when someone with particular qualifications claims that only those with the same qualifications need apply. Seems to me that with the Populist aura sweeping the land we need to be somewhat more open minded or be left with highly qualified, but unelected, candidates. Certainly it seems that some of the so qualified people, of both parties, now in Washington are serving their Corporate masters and not the voters who elected them.

Make your case.

Hi Steve.

You'll get no argument from me that Washington is full of turkeys who represent everything but the public's best interests. (It also has a lot of good folks who try hard to do the right thing.)

However, if you (or your favored candidate) for Congress are seeking that office without having ever served in public office at the state or local level first, then be prepared to answer questions like these:

--How do we know that you have the knowledge to be effective in translating your ideals and policy positions into law and budgets?

--How do we know that you have the diplomatic skills and other abilities to negotiate persuasively with colleagues, respond convincingly to constituents, and accurately filter the siren songs of highly skilled special interest lobbyists?

Or, to use one of those tiresome sports analogies: Why should we give you a big league contract without having first watched you play in college or with a minor league farm team?

In our system, you are at complete liberty to make your case. Go to it.

Dan Besse