The 'Practice' of Public Service

C. Christine Fillmore

Anyone reading this probably already knows that local government can be difficult, confusing, and sometimes frustrating. There are a lot of moving parts—departments, boards, officials, employees, and the various personalities of the people in all of those positions; laws, rules, and policies, which are constantly changing; financial pressure; political pressure. Everyone needs something right now, and it must be done correctly.

The Challenge
Research shows that public distrust and discontent with government is growing. A 2010 study by the Pew Center for the People and the Press revealed rising criticism about government at all levels. While the study focused primarily on the federal government, it also provided some information on local government. In 1997, 64 percent of people saw the impact of their local government as positive; in 2010, that figure had dropped to 51 percent. The study also revealed increased anger toward governmental officials and departments at all levels. (The People and Their Government: Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor, Pew Center for the People and the Press, April 18, 2010.)

These results may be explained in part by the economy. Distrust of government is strongly connected to how people feel about the overall state of the nation. The Pew Center study found this distrust soars when the public is unhappy with the way things are going in the country. Interestingly, 79 percent of survey respondents (even those who said they were angry with the government) widely agreed that that government is now confronting more difficult problems than ever before. Unfortunately, the economy is not something most local officials have the power to change.

However, there are other issues which everyone can address. Perhaps the most striking result of the Pew Center study is the perception that citizens have of their government officials. At least 76 percent of all respondents agreed with the following statements: elected officials (on a federal level) “care only about their careers,” “are influenced by special interests,” “are unwilling to compromise,” “are profligate and out-of-touch.” 

It may be simple to dismiss these findings because they focused in large part on the federal government. On some level, however, they probably touch a nerve with everyone. Local government is not immune from the same difficult issues that plague the federal government. We have all heard of situations involving a feud between two officials, or a land use decision that some feel was motivated by personality rather than rules, a heavy-handed official who was convinced he or she was right all of the time, or any number of others. These situations are often, unfortunately, the ones highlighted in the press.

So what can we do, aside from trying to shine light on the things government officials are doing right? There is much more to governing than simply being elected or appointed. Personality, motivation, knowledge, and experience all play into the way each official carries out his or her duties. There is a lot to learn about the law, how government works, the different personalities of others in government, the public perception and sentiment about the municipality, the accounting and financial requirements, and how to manage other people effectively. In short, it is a lot to ask of anyone.

It is no wonder, given all of this, that officials can become overwhelmed, make snap decisions, or do something they later wish they hadn’t. That doesn’t make these officials bad people. It merely makes them human.

Think back to when you learned to write, or drive a car, or play an instrument or a sport. Were you good at it right away? In most cases, the answer is no. To improve, we all have to practice. Everyone knows this.

What may be less obvious is that we need to keep practicing to remain good at almost anything. This idea is ingrained in a lot of professions and activities. We practice medicine, practice law, practice yoga, practice a religion. Practitioners work at it, a little at a time, to maintain and improve performance. Speaking from personal experience, I’m most likely to fall flat on my face just when I begin to think I’ve learned it all.

So here’s an idea: what if we considered local government service as a “practice”?

Every practice has a central theme for guidance, and local government service should be no different. How about this: “All men are born equally free and independent; therefore, all government of right originates from the people, is founded in consent, and instituted for the general good.” N.H. Constitution, Part I, article 1. Or this: “When men enter into a state of society, they surrender up some of their natural rights to society, in order to ensure the protection of others; and, without such an equivalent, the surrender is void.” N.H. Constitution, Part I, article 3. Or even this: “…Government … should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive.” N.H. Constitution, Part I, article 8.

In other words, the framers of our State Constitution believed that government exists to promote the general good. People in our society retain certain freedoms but must surrender some of their rights for the good of the whole. And since this is a government formed by the people, government must be accountable to those people.

Promoting the General Good
This gets at the heart of why people volunteer for public service. The idea is that each of us, by contributing our knowledge, experience, and talents, has something to give to the effort of making our town, city, village district, or school district a better place for everyone. Not everyone will do it, but those who serve are to be admired for their dedication to something so important and difficult.

Once the initial excitement wears off, however, officials have to get down to the hard work of governing. Suddenly, there are deadlines. There is a lot to know—usually a bit more than expected. People have complaints, requests, and demands, and they are all, of course, urgent. Everyone has a different style, different priorities, different motivations. Not everyone works well together, but in local government there is no other option.

In the flurry of activity, it can be easy to lose sight of the goal and focus instead on things like who is in charge, who is right, hurt feelings or fear of losing face.

One way to maintain focus is to learn, constantly. Even experienced officials and employees find that they don’t remember everything and that the law changes all the time. Reading the law, taking training classes and using training materials, networking with people from other municipalities, and maintaining an open mind to new ideas are just some of the ways officials can help to keep their knowledge current.

Knowledge is helpful, of course, but on occasion it can be used not as a tool for good but instead as a weapon to prove who is in charge and who is right (or, more pointedly, who is wrong). Power struggles and disputes within and among boards waste an amazing amount of time, money and political capital, no matter who ends up “winning.” Ultimately, all of the officials involved are there to serve the public. It is difficult to see how this goal is furthered when all the energy in the room is focused on internal disputes.

Another helpful idea here is humility. It is unlikely that anyone knows everything about how to be a local official (municipal law, management, accounting, public relations, public safety, land use law, and public speaking, to name a few). Even the most well-respected professionals in any field need to consult the books now and then, because it is impossible to remember everything. Public officials should have no qualms about doing the same. “I don’t know, but I will find out” is a perfectly acceptable answer in most situations.

Putting the Good of the Whole First
In any society, there will be times when a person does not get things his or her way. It is often said that “my right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.”  That saying refers to criminal law, but this is also how democracy works. We cannot all do exactly as we please all the time. The result would be chaos.

At the local government level, boards and commissions must work together as a team. There is simply no alternative. City councils, boards of selectmen, planning boards, police commissions, and every other official public body can take official action only by majority vote among a quorum of members. See, e.g., RSA 49-C:12; RSA 41:8. In addition, under New Hampshire’s Right to Know Law, such a vote can occur only at a properly noticed public meeting at which minutes are kept. RSA 91-A:2; RSA 91-A:2-a.

It is often said that a single selectman has no authority. This comes from RSA 41:8, which says that “a majority of selectmen shall be competent in all cases.” In other words, boards of selectmen only act in a legal and binding way when they act as a board by majority vote. No single selectman has the authority to hire employees, engage independent contractors, or award public contracts unless a majority of the selectmen, at a properly-noticed public meeting, have voted in advance to authorize that particular selectman to take those actions. The same concept applies to any other municipal board, committee, or commission. In a city or a town with a charter, the law is even more clear: “The elected body shall act in all matters as a body, and shall not seek individually to influence the official acts of the chief administrative officer, or any other official, or to direct or request, except in writing, the appointment of any person to, or his removal from, office; or to interfere in any way with the performance by such officers of their duties….”  RSA 49-C:19; 49-D:4.

Having said all of that, however, it is inevitable that differences among local officials will arise. There are a few time-tested techniques which may help:

  • Wait. It is easy to react to something that seems outrageous, or dangerous, or flatly wrong by responding quickly and forcefully. However, unless the building is on fire, there is probably time to think about it before speaking.
  • Often, a disagreement is caused by a difference in people’s assumptions or beliefs. Instead of rushing to persuade the other person, try listening and asking questions to figure out what those beliefs are. Arguing immediately can cause the other person to raise their emotional “shields,” so the longer you can listen without arguing, the better. With a greater understanding of where the person is coming from, you may be able to find a compromise, even if you don’t come to a complete agreement. And if you can’t agree, at least you can keep from making it worse.
  • Remember that the other person may, in fact, be right (at least a little bit). There is nothing weak about having an open mind. In the end, you may feel exactly the same way that you did at the start, but you will have given the other person the chance to explain themself fully. Perhaps the next time, they will extend the same courtesy to you.

Accountability to the Public
These days, people talk about “transparency” as if it were a new idea. It isn’t. In 1784, when the New Hampshire Constitution was ratified, it included this language:

“All power residing originally in, and being derived from, the people, all the magistrates and officers of government are their substitutes and agents, and at all times accountable to them.” Part I, article 8.

Why is accountability important? It goes far beyond the fact that the public will be asked to vote at some future time on whether to elect or re-elect an official. That is the least of the issues, particularly for officials who are concerned about promoting the greater good through public service.

The real issue here is trust. Local officials are put in a position of trust by their municipalities. With this trust comes responsibility, as well as accountability. Specific responsibilities are often set out in laws, charters, ordinances and policies of the municipality. The law assumes that elected and appointed officials are competent to perform their duties and responsible enough to follow through. It has been said that “responsible public officials also possess internal characteristics that interact with the external charge of responsibility given to them. These officials have a sound concept of their duties and they act in accordance, with due deliberation, sound reasoning and consideration of relevant facts and circumstances.” (Delmer D. Dunn and Jerome S. Legge, Jr., U.S. Local Government Managers and the Complexity of Responsibility and Accountability in Democratic Governance, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, January 2001, pp. 73-88.)

Accountability, on the other hand, “requires that officials consider the consequences of their actions as they exercise discretion,” according to Dunn and Legge. A democratic government is supposed to be “open, accessible, accountable and responsive” to the public. N.H. Constitution, Part I, article 8. This means that when things go wrong, there will be consequences. Considering those potential consequences before acting is one way to reduce the risks.

Doing what is required and proper under the law is extremely important, but it is not the only thing to worry about. Here is a common scenario: Two of five selectmen or three of seven planning board members get together to discuss board business without notifying the other board members or posting the meeting as a public meeting. If a quorum was not involved in the gathering, is this legal? Maybe, depending on all of the circumstances. (If you’re interested, see RSA 91-A:2 and RSA 91-A:2-a.)

More to the point, even if something is legal, is it a good idea? The answer is not always so clear. “How might this look to the public?” This is a question that gets to the heart of accountability. The example above involves the Right to Know Law, but that is merely one of thousands of situations in which public perception is critical. Once the public stops trusting local officials, it can be unbelievably difficult to regain that trust. Considering public perception before acting can help to avoid years of mistrust and difficulty.

Moving Forward
Serving in local government is not easy. There is a lot to know. There are many traps for the unwary. And there are a lot of citizens watching. Everyone gets off track now and then; it is to be expected, really. What matters is having the presence of mind to get up, refocus, and move forward. Perhaps by approaching public service as a continuing “practice,” officials can maintain focus on the goals, continue working on their knowledge and skills, be mindful of their responsibilities and accountability to the public, and, ultimately, continue to serve the public even better than they already do.

Christine Fillmore is a Staff Attorney with the New Hampshire Local Government Center’s Legal Services and Government Affairs Department. Local officials in NHMA-member municipalities may contact LGC’s legal services attorneys for more information on this and other topics of interest Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. by calling 800.852.3358, ext. 384. School officials should contact the New Hampshire School Boards Association attorney at 800.272.0653.