Friday, August 3, 2007

On Integrity and Competence

I believe John Servais' blog today on NW Citizen got it right that the most important qualifications for elected officials and candidates for these offices are integrity and competence. It isn't always possible to expect more than these, but it's certainly not in the public interest to accept less!

The question is, 'how to determine whether people have sufficient integrity and competence for public service'? What is the test? How do we know candidates will have this integrity and competence, until they are actually tested in office? Are integrity and competence enough? Does some part of what 'competence' means related to actual experience and effectiveness on the job? If so, why isn't incumbency valued more? Are our expectations of elected officials reasonably aligned with reality?

These are really good questions for voters to consider, but they won't mean as much if voter's don't vote! My blog for July 29, titled Candidate Questionnaire & Decision Making attempts to find the right questions to ask that will help us know something more about candidates than just their campaign rhetoric on current issues, which, of course, is needed to get them elected.

Once people are elected, their actual performance toward the goals they promised can become a measure of their success. But, before they are in office, some 'leap of faith' is required to become elected. It has been said that 'politics is the art of the possible', and that is inherently true.

While someone has to serve in office, that person must also work with their peers, other elected officers, counterparts in other jurisdictions and the public. Of these groups, only the public can really hold any elected official truly responsible for their performance. This can be done through political pressure for positive change, or by threat of not being re-elected, as electeds quickly find out once they are in office! Sometimes, the pressure is strong to do things that will not be legal or sustainable enough for everyone over time. Sometimes, electeds find it expedient to pander to special interests to remain popular and stay in office. Where does integrity and competence fit into these situations?

Years ago, when I was first appointed to City Council, a former Council member sent me this quote, which I took as good advice: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion." -Sir Edmund Burke

The best test for which candidates would make the best elected officials probably combines the following ingredients among others: Do enough people know them to adequately judge their character, especially integrity and competence? Will they be good listeners? Will they have the courage to take action that might not be popular? Have they demonstrated knowledge of and commitment to those values that the community supports? Do they have hidden agendas? Will they be respectful and civil, regardless of temptations to the contrary? Will they fairly weigh and balance all arguments before settling on a preferred position?
Can they consistently separate fact from fiction, and fairly represent the long term public interest over divisive issues?

Aristotle considered Politics as a 'practical science', meaning rigid criteria weren't possible as with, say, mathematics for example. Democracy itself is not amenable to any one cookbook recipe, but dynamic and adaptable in nature, as it has to be. But politics without principle is a loser for everyone! It is always up to the citizens to figure out and then demand whatever principles we expect in our elected officials!

One last thought on the subject of integrity and competence.
During the 2000 Presidential Primary, I strongly supported Bill Bradley for his integrity and competence. He didn't succeed in becoming President, or even as the Democrats candidate, but he did succeed in maintaining his integrity and competence!

Bradley has now written a new book, titled 'The New American Story'. which I have read with great interest. It is an ambitious, right-minded book which addresses many of the problems our nation, and we as the people, continue to have that are not being even adequately discussed by our elected officials in that other Washington, much less resolved.

Bradley's topics include America's role in the World; the Economy; Oil & the Environment; Pensions; Health Care; Education, all huge and daunting challenges! And, he does it from the perspective that each 'problem' is also an 'opportunity', then offers some very clear suggestions as to what actions can be taken to achieve the progress that would benefit all citizens. But, Bradley doesn't stop there, he estimates the costs for his recommendations and identifies funding sources for them, too.

The big 'surprise' is that all these things could all be accomplished by -ready for this?- reordering our priorities and redirecting existing funding! Of course, these aren't simple, small things, they are hard things that will require effort and political courage that only the American people can provide. There's that concept again, we can't expect our leaders to just 'handle it', can we?.

But, Bradley also does not play the partisan 'blame game' either. Oh no, there is enough blame to go around and then some! His chapters on 'Why the Republicans Can't' and 'Why he Democrats Won't' make it clear that there are some conundrums we've gotten ourselves into that have become entrenched obstacles to any real progress happening any time soon.

In his concluding chapters, Bradley explains why this 'New Story' is really 'good politics', and what citizens can do to help these problems become opportunities that we can get behind and make happen. I was inspired by this book, and I think others will be too!