Is Governing Possible? Led by Annise Parker


Governing is an impracticable job performed with insufficient tools by inadequately prepared people, often in a system designed to prevent progress.  Yet it is necessary; human beings in community must have a method of decision making.  Why, after thousands of years of trying, have we not perfected the process?

Certainly partisanship, ego and ambition can taint any government body, but even factoring out those variables, governing is hard work.  Cities are where government appears to work best.  They are less partisan, more results oriented and more innovative than states or the federal government.  Cities function because they are the level at which government provides the essentials (water, sanitation, etc.) for humans to physically coexist. 

If the states are fifty experiments in democracy for America, then cities are thousands of such.  For anyone interested in the mechanics of government, or opportunities for public service, cities are a great place to start.  But even in cities the mechanics of government are challenging, frustrating and often Byzantine. 

I regularly encounter young people who inform me they want to be elected someday.  I always ask, "But what do you want to do?"  There's a difference between winning an election, holding an office, governing successfully and shaping the future. One doesn’t have to be in office to accomplish the latter.  If you follow your passion, every level of government, and many government posts, has rewards and frustrations, and the chance to make a difference.  I spent 18 years in municipal government, and was excited to go to work every day. 

I led Houston, the 4th largest city in the US, for six years, only the 10th woman and 1st gay mayor to lead a major American city.  I came into politics with 20 years of private sector experience in the oil industry and 10 years owning a small business, but government is a different world.  

I've defined the starting point for each week below, but I don't know where we'll end up.  I'll have real world examples, a few guests and personal anecdotes.  I'll expect you to have your own.  Join me in a conversation about what's behind the curtain.

Week 1 (2/17/16):  The oldest profession.  I'll introduce myself, and touch on the decision points that led me from shy introvert to public person, from private to public sector, from lesbian activist to being named one of Time Magazines 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2010. 

We'll discuss how government and politics are distinct but overlapping systems, and why I believe governing is the oldest profession.  What does it means to have a responsibility to be in community, to participate?  What if we held an election and nobody came?

Week 2 (2/24/16):  Who are you?  What do you believe, what are you willing to do to advance those beliefs, and what would constitute success?  Every race is a unique set of variables.  What are your skill sets? What are the problems that could derail you?

Campaigning and governing are different jobs, and offer unique challenges to different personality types.  Candidates are blank slates, free to take positions or promise solutions only loosely tethered to reality.  They compete to stand out from the pack. Campaigns have a beginning, middle and a finish line. 

Officeholders stand on their records and have to produce measurable results. They are expected to collaborate and compromise.  The work of government is like riding a bike, you can't stop peddling or you fall over. There is no instruction manual for an elected position, although there may be statutory duties.  How do you allot your time?   Do you reflect your constituents or your conscience (delegate or a representative)?

Week 3 (3/2/16):  Do you know what you don’t know?  Government has been described as a place where good ideas go to die.  And new officials often face unrealistic expectations.  There is a gulf between setting a political agenda and executing on it.  How can you drive innovation and change?  Why isn't your brilliant idea moving?  Of course there are limits to authority and resource constraints, but it could be inertia, ignorance, bandwidth, competing priorities, or active resistance.  Resistance to change can be philosophical, personal or protective.  Where is your fulcrum, what are your levers?

Public officials regularly make decisions in areas in which they have no expertise.  They depend on information supplied by others.   How do you pick a team?  Who has access?  Are staff gatekeepers or gateways?  Define lobbyist.

Week 4 (3/9/16):  Who are these people?  Communication is your most important tool.  You know who lives in your district.  You know who voted for you.  But who are your constituents?  How do you know?  How do you know what they want?  What if they don’t know what they want?  What if you can't give them what they want?

Once you know your audience, how do you reach them? From a tweet to a presser to a formal speech, you must consider content, tone, delivery, and context.  (It's been said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but can the prose be better written?)

Week 5 (3/23/16):  Who moved the goal posts?  You are elected to solve problems. But those may be manageable but not solvable, bigger than your position, already at an impasse or at tremendous cost.  And the world doesn't stop while you figure it out.

Do you toss a grenade or seek consensus?  When is compromise capitulation?  What defines a good compromise, when is it appropriate and why is it so hard?  Every decision leaves winners and losers, how do you balance the cost?

Week 6 (3/30/16):  Who knew?  One of the biggest impediments to progress in government is the steps we take to keep from making a mistake, or taking the blame. But even decisions that seem right at the time can be discredited by changes in knowledge, unforeseen events, unintended consequences or shifting mores.

Tip O'Neill said all politics is local, but he wasn't contending with a 24-hour, worldwide news cycle in which everyone with a digital camera calls themselves a reporter and local newspapers (and in-depth reporting) are disappearing.  A Ferguson shooting affects policing in Houston.  A Baltimore riot sends shock waves through Chicago.

Week 7 (4/6/16):  Why me?  The no-win scenario is a fact of political life.  How do you recognize it? Do you take a principled stand, or stand on principle, and can you survive the next election?

Politics is awash in money.  What is the difference between a campaign contribution and a bribe?  How big a donation is too big and how do you interact with big donors or bundlers?

No one wins all the time.  How to use a loss to move forward.

Week 8 (4/13/16):  What was I thinking?  Public service means private sacrifice.  A public official lives in the public eye, and so does her family.  Can a public official have a private life?  Is the job worth the sacrifices in time, privacy and earning potential?  Can you live with knowing that you can be the best at what you do, and 20 % will always vote against you?  (Or knowing that if you can walk on water a number of your constituents will complain you can't swim.).

Each new elected position was the best job I'd ever had.  What makes the job worthwhile?