A Little Performance Anxiety
I don’t know how things are for you, but where I work there is a very comprehensive annual employee review process. In the normal work world, it seems, there is still a premium placed on actual results. And, employers still require that you meet your personal, departmental, and corporate goals. This is yet one more major area where the political world differs from the work world. If you went to your boss and used some of the same tactics and terminology used by just about every political candidate, you might last a little while, but eventually, the bottom-line nature of corporate America would catch up to you.
I’m always skeptical when a candidate at any level starts making promises, but I’m even more bewildered by how we as a country don’t ever seem motivated to hold them to their word. The best politicians are always very adept at deferring both blame and responsibility, even while the results are crystal clear. In the work world, you either deliver or eventually you pack up your desk and make room for someone else who can. In the political world, it’s always the other guy's fault, or something you just need more time or money to solve.
Part of the problem is that most of those political promises are usually so vague that even the slightest of movements in any direction is lauded as progress. Another culprit is the fact that actual gains are nearly impossible to measure independently. If a mayor promises to control crime, how do you rate the success or failure? Do you use conviction rates, incident reports, or just randomly ask citizens how they feel? Numbers can be speculative, and personal feelings are completely relative.
Yet another issue is that even the most well-intentioned politician is oftentimes completely dependent on the action of others to affect any positive change. And even when they can get something done, positive results in one area might have secondary consequences in others. I’ve been pretty hard on Dennis Kucinich in the past, but one thing I’ll never criticize him for is how little money in earmarks he brings home to this district, because while it might help our local economy, to me, it’s more important to limit the discretionary spending by Congress.
Maybe these are some of the reasons that politicians hide behind vagaries in their campaigns. With so many people looking for a miniscule misstep, the mere possibility of a lie, or even the slightest slip of the tongue, it’s like having thousands of bosses standing over you, every minute of the day while you work. If it were me, I think I would call in sick. A lot.
But that’s why we need to come back to the work world for solutions. My job review starts with my own assessment. While the company definitely has its say in setting the appropriate levels of responsibility and achievement, they need my input as well, at the very least, to help shape how success is measured. That way everyone is on the same page and by the end of the year, everyone can grade on the same curve.
And that’s why I think we need a similar system with our elected officials. Forget the initial elections process, that’s a total crapshoot, trying to decide who’s got the goods and who’s full of hot air. I’m talking about once the election is over, having some sort of open dialogue with the public to determine not just realistic goals, but a realistic means to measure those goals.
I recognize that this would be considered very risky for the politician, but if they truly had as much faith in their own ability to succeed as they’re asking from us, then the benefits would also be very lucrative. I can tell you right now that if Mr. Kucinich came to me with a measurable set of performance goals that we both agreed were fair, and he managed to meet even most of those goals prior to the next election, even I would have a hard time voting for someone untested who opposed him.
But it all comes down to one word: fair. To be fair, the goals must be legitimately obtainable. Regardless of what is promised, you can’t hold a single Congressman accountable for ending a war, eliminating homelessness or balancing the budget. But you can charge them with things like proposing new legislation, or meeting a minimum attendance for voting. You might also work in goals for strengthening their individual district by measuring jobless claims, or monitoring bank foreclosures.
To be fair, the goals also must compensate for fluctuations in variables that are outside the officials’ realm of responsibility. Being tackled with the responsibility to show an increase in jobs is difficult on its own, but if the country is in a recession, it’s even harder. Instead of inflexible numbers, measurements should be graded on a curve. After all, what good is a 10% increase in Cleveland’s Average Household Income if the city of Pittsburgh can boast 12%?
Fairness also means utilizing universally recognizable benchmarks from unquestionable sources. The more you can use readily available and certifiable data, the less margin of error you incur. Transparency is crucial in this matter, as nothing scares me more than reading results from an “independent” poll when I can’t see the methods and motives of the people conducting it.
And finally, for it to be fair, it must also be understood that those who didn’t support the candidate must concede to at least some of the goals of the people who did. You can’t hold a candidate responsible for achieving things that weren’t in his platform. They won by presumably getting the most votes, and given the way a democracy works, that gives them the right, if not the obligation, to try it the way they said they would.
If those qualifications can somehow be met, I think you’ll find that even those who opposed a candidate would be more supportive of them while they held the office. And as election time rolls around again, results just might be a bigger campaign issue than hope.