Doing Democracy

What is democracy? We talk about it all the time, use the word as a banner of identity, and often claim it’s inherent superiority over other political systems. Yet I have found that few can accurately define more that the right to vote, and the underlying principles which are the foundation of democratic theory, dating back to ancient Greece, remain unpracticed. In the public service sector, it is vital to understand what we are in service OF, if not democracy itself.

Once again, I might argue that language itself tells us a story of where we go wrong in our understanding of democratic principle. Democracy is a noun. It’s a thing, outside of ourselves. And reasonably speaking, there is no comfortable verb form – democratize? That means to make democratic, but doesn’t indicate the ACT of democracy. Instead, when speaking of the action principles of democracy, we use most commonly the term ‘democratic practice’.

The Kettering Foundation, a nonprofit specializing in research about how to make democracy work, states that “Democratic practices are ways citizens can work together—even when they disagree—to address shared problems.” Furthermore, “Democracy requires responsible citizens who can make sound decisions about their future and can act on these decisions”. These statements frame a picture of engaged, involved citizens in a democratic society, working together at all levels of community to solve shared problems, and to create a shared social value which accepts dissent. Voting once a year is simply not enough to keep democracy going, but rather is just a jumping off point. Our elected officials, while ostensibly representing our interests, cannot act democratically in our communities FOR us.

The most fundamental principle of democracy can be summed up by those nine words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “of the people, by the people, for the people”. Or better still, the probable source of those words, a 1858 sermon by Theodore Parker in Boston, which states, “Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people”. A democratic society, or an organization serving that society, must be actively engaged and serving the common good. For ALL people. A society which does not perceive all people of deserving of good lives is a society divided, and one in which democracy cannot work. Inclusion is at the core of democratic practice, and in a place where populations are systematically left out of education, voting, and progress, no democracy truly exists.

What does all of this mean in terms of public administrators? It means that we need to take some hard looks at the organizations that serve as the gears of government. While we purport democratic ideals, most government organizations are hierarchies, fraught with power dynamics and a structure that is inherently undemocratic. Government agencies need to embrace democratic principle, and actively engage citizens in decision making, goal setting, and process. Those citizens include staff!! Agencies should be developing and practicing processes that bring people together from all levels to make sound decisions to solve shared problems. How can we expect our democracy to survive, let alone thrive, when the millions of people who serve in our local, state, and federal agencies are not engaged in democratic processes, not treated as if their voices matter, not included in decision making? We cannot, and we see everywhere around us the results of this structural failure, in the lack of innovation, in the systemic disenfranchisement of the poor, women, and people of color.

Government, and governmental agencies, must find a way to be of, by, and for the people again. Even the receptionists, techs, and mechanics are people in this democracy, and it is time we treated all citizens as equal. In conference rooms and in community halls, in video meetings and in policy briefings. In a democracy, we should ALL be in the room.

Hiring Practices- Setting the Tone for Innovation

The resume is believed to have been first used in 1482 by Leonardo Da Vinci himself. In a letter to a prospective employer, Leo wrote out an impressive list of his accomplishments and skills and sent it off in an effort to secure a position with the Duke of Milan. In the late 1500’s, Englishman Ralph Agas published a list of his skills in several newspaper ads promoting himself – the first use of media to job search.

Since the 1950’s, the resume has been an integral part of the hiring process for most fields – a great resume gets you an interview is the common conception. While the formatting has changed (typewriters & computers make a difference), the substantive content of the resume has remained virtually the same for almost 70 years despite the huge changes in the world, workforce, and needs of organizations. And the key elements of the resume, experience and education, are no longer the most important factors in successfully finding employees who love their work and are dedicated to their agency.

Acknowledging this is more important in public administration than anywhere else. Careers in public administration are based on a desire to help the world, to do good work, and to be a public servant. No resume can tell a recruiter how positive a person is to be around, or how passionate they are about the work they do. Tim Stevens, author of Fairness Is Overrated: And 51 Other Leadership Principles to Revolutionize Your Workplace, says education and experience are what a company should care about least.

“A person’s skill set and personality–the things behind the resume–are much more important,” he says. “You need to know if a person has an aptitude for leadership, how they deal with failure, how they treat people when they disagree, and if the role you’re hiring for is their passion or a stepping-stone to something else.”

Current hiring practices in PA are focused critically on these two things, eliminating candidates with skills and passion while rewarding experience over all other metrics. This is a recipe for stagnation and waste, as those hired for positions are most often those who have already done the same position, most likely in another agency. The same people, with the same skills, tend to get hired over and over, moving from agency to agency in search of job satisfaction. Each time this ‘experienced’ applicant gets hired, they leave behind a vacancy, which then costs time and money to fill.

When the same person, or the same KIND of person, gets hired over and over there is little impetus for innovation. Indeed, innovation can almost only come from new ideas and new people. Diversity and inclusion are about more than just ticking boxes on EEOC forms – real diversity means diversifying perspective, allowing different people with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences into the halls of policy. Current hiring practice belie the principles of inclusion and innovation by focusing on the wrong things when choosing interview candidates.

A single mother, recently divorced and just gone back to school will have very little experience. But she has a perspective and an innate understanding of where public support systems are failing. This person might make an excellent addition to the Department of Early Learning, but chances are she won’t make it into an interview room. A young black artist with a Master’s degree, whose life has focused on creativity and social change might apply for a position with DSHS, but not be talked to because he hasn’t worked in government before. An older person with 25 years in the private sector might decide to change their life and dedicate to social service only to find that their experience in business management gets no traction because it isn’t PUBLIC management.

All these voices are being lost. Those most served by governmental agencies – the underprivileged, the young, and the elderly- are almost never among those hired to serve and advise those same agencies. There can be no reasonable expectation of real innovation and change when the people in the room are always the SAME people.

If public administration is serious about inclusion and innovation, and if there are limited resources for making changes, hiring practices is a strong leverage point. This is the beginning point, the entrance, the gate to public service that sets the tone and standards for behavior and beliefs in our public institutions. Deep structural and procedural changes to hiring practices, like finding an alternative to the ancient and irrelevant resume, can bring in new blood and new ideas that might save our toppling institutions. Hiring for culture, focusing on skills & abilities over experience, and broadening the social origin of applicants can reinvigorate public administration.

Hire the people we need, not the people we already know. Success is more about risk than continuity. With where things are now, what is there to lose?

Process IS Product: You can’t eat the pie before you make it.


In government, policy is king.  Policy sets the expectation for process, and the parameters for action by any agency, agency head, or line worker. For instance, if the Governor’s panel convenes and then writes a policy statement that the State will “work to promote governmental actions that are transparent”, it means that every State employee must have the reasonable expectation that their work (and emails, texts, etc) will be open to public disclosure.

What policy doesn’t do is tell us how to get there. We want transparent government? How do we make actions easy to view? Does transparency include decision making? What if we want inclusive hiring practices? How do we set that up? What are the definitions of inclusive, or transparent? For either of these stated goals, why are they important, and what purpose do they serve?

It becomes clear upon any in depth analysis that “how” and “why” come BEFORE “what”. And yet, we rarely see this happen. While it should seem self evident that VERBS are how we really get things done, and NOUNS are just the things we use to do them, our language betrays our lack of intent. We spend in public administration a lot of time talking about WHAT and not nearly as much time talking about HOW. Let me use my favorite analogy – pie.

My boss comes in to my office and says he wants me to make a pie. It’s super important, because the Governor (or director, or City council, or whatever) really thinks that what would make our community great is pie. Then he turns around and walks out, and I am left to make a pie.

No one talked about what kind of pie. No one laid clear guidelines about whether the pie would be refrigerated or baked. These require entirely different tools. Does everyone in the community like the same kind of pie? Is cherry pie going to offend some people, and coconut pie offend others? Am I only allowed to make one kind of pie? Is it a french baking technique that’s most suitable, because if so I must determine the order in which the ingredients must be combined and the type of butter to be used…. on and on.

You pexels-photo-205961.jpegdon’t make pie by walking into the kitchen and throwing flour, butter, salt, fruit and sugar in a bowl and calling it pie. That is not pie. That is THE THINGS THAT MAKE PIE. The pie is made through a specific set of actions, processes, and timing that are all determined by the type of pie required. And the type of pie required is different for everyone.

In the same way, a policy of inclusion is NOT in itself inclusion. The set of actions and processes by which we (verb) BUILD inclusive practice is inclusion. Engaged community is not achieved by having five people in leadership meet to talk about (noun) engaged community. It is achieved by ENGAGING (verb) the community in the decisions, actions, and processes that determine the tenor and quality of the communities health.

“Side note/ soapbox: It cannot be overstated that successful democratic governance must actually BE democratic. Over and over, we see policies struggle to achieve successful interventions in the real lives of citizens, perhaps because a policy is a noun. We see the entire apparatus of government outside the electoral process run in hierarchies, with little chance for democratic practice within the system itself. Without the verb, the actual hows and whys being asked and engaged every day, democracy fails. Every time.”

The next time your organization or agency struggles to achieve some policy change, or engages in decision making that excludes the voices and processes of stakeholders, ask yourself this – what kind of pie are we making here? And who decided not to make cake?