Bureaucrats and Staff that Advise Politicians
Anyone who has been following politics for any length of time has probably noticed a trend, that it doesn’t matter who you elect, things rarely change much. Clark County Washington is no exception. There are rare cases where an elected official has a profound effect on the office they occupy, but usually the functions of these political offices operate on a business as usual basis, no matter who sits in the elected seat.
“Do you want to talk to someone in charge, or someone who really knows what’s going on?”
An elected official does not – cannot – operate independently. Most of the responsibilities of an elected office are far beyond the capabilities of one person to manage or even properly understand. As the elected officials hold the responsibility of the position, they’re in the role of managers and policy makers, but are inevitably dependent on the capacity and knowledge of unelected bureaucrats and staffers. These are the people who perform necessary analysis, do background research, and develop detailed action plans for the use and consideration of the elected officials.
Staffers and bureaucrats occupy long-term employment positions that support the elected positions. Their tenure will usually overlap several holders of the office they support. As government employees, their positions are frequently unionized, and their jobs are secure from the winds of politics. Their jobs are also usually secure from merit-based critique. An experienced bureaucrat becomes adept at “managing” their elected bosses. Since the elected official is so dependent on their institutional knowledge, staffers can insinuate themselves into subtle but powerful roles in the decision making process. A staffer can promote a personal political agenda by simply biasing decision making data towards their favored decision. Their recommendations can emphasize or neglect critical information that the elected official lacks the experience to understand. The unscrupulous staffer can “pocket veto” requests, bids or proposals by simply slow-rolling them, using legitimate but unnecessary tactics to delay processes and prevent undesired items from appearing before the elected official in a timely fashion. This behavior by bureaucrats is pervasive at all levels of government. It’s cultural, so most would not even recognize a problem. Clark County’s status in this regard is not good as was demonstrated during the CRC bridge boondoggle fight in which the local bureaucrats went to extreme measures to protect the establishment’s objectives, which also aligned with protecting the power of the bureaucracy.
Experienced private entities understand that the staffers are often the gatekeepers to the elected official, and court them for access. Companies and others with a political agenda which mirrors that of the staffer are more likely to be granted access to the elected official. A staffer can assist a petitioner through obstacles or place obstacles in the political process, depending on how sympathetic they are to the success of the petitioner, whether it’s someone seeking a permit for something, or bidding on a contract, or a myriad of other functions supported by an office. This promotes an atmosphere where favors and back-scratching adulterates the objectivity that most voters call for in their elected officials. Since bureaucrats don’t stand for election, their activities are mostly invisible to the public eye. Savvy companies and political committees understand that a long-term relationship with an entrenched bureaucrat is far more valuable than a direct relationship with an elected official who is only one election cycle away from vacating the position at any given time.
What does this suggest when considering a political candidate? Aside from the traits that we most associate with preferred candidates, their positions on issues, ethics, experience, etc.; we have to look at a candidate’s leadership capability. Does the candidate have the strength of personality to manage a team of entrenched bureaucrats to his stated end, or will he allow himself to be managed by them? Does he have the managerial and technical experience to credibly question his subordinates on their methodology, and demand that they justify their methods? Will he demand a third-party evaluation from objective consultants to validate the claims of his potentially biased staffers? Given the amount of public funds that can be at stake for many political projects, the cost of a competent and unbiased expert to evaluate decision options can easily pay for itself in getting value for the taxpayer dollar. Does the candidate or existing public servant have the personal skills and experience to recognize when they’re being “managed”, and take steps to put a halt to it and reverse the roles to what is expected of our elected leaders?
At ClarkCounty.info we will be drawing attention to situations in which unelected bureaucrats take on the mantle of their elected supervisors and use their position to inappropriately influence public policy.