Friday, February 5, 2016

Public Criticism and Decision-Making

Most people can go through their entire lives without a single decision being criticized in the public eye.  Sure, they may have a skeptical spouse or an incensed teenager, but their decisions remain outside of the realm of open assault by strangers.  Those who enter elected office, serve on government committees, or even serve on nonprofit boards, all should expect, and in many respects welcome, public critique.

I will probably always remember my first vote of public consequence.  It was to elect the chair of the CA Board.  I had been privately lobbied from the moment I had joined the Board by two different coalitions supporting two different candidates.  I knew the vote would be tight and that I would be the deciding factor.  This vote was picayune to the point of irrelevance, but it made me nervous.  Sure enough, after it was over, the losing candidate came up to me with anger in their eyes to say "I know how you voted and I do NOT appreciate it."  Needless to say, I cared less and less about such scrutiny as time went on.

The effect of outside critique on an individual is not particularly interesting.  Some shut down and close their office door.  Some tune it all out and press ahead.  Some break down and go in whatever direction the wind is blowing regardless of whether it is consistent with the long term plan.  In any of those circumstances, the integrity of the office stands firm despite the weakness, or strength, of the individual.

What is interesting, and concerning, is what public critique can do to an organization or government body.  It can result in the construction and reinforcement of walls.  The members trust no one but themselves.  They "read their own press releases" and discount outside commentary as either uninformed or motivated by some out-of-proportion conspiracy to take them out.  The members justify withholding information and orchestrate farcical expressions of public support.  They engage in more closed meetings, faster decision-making, and less explanation for the same.

Why?  Because they know best.  The hardest thing to accept is that they actually have good intentions.  They believe the are on the right side of the issue, but they don't consider how they could ever find out if they weren't.  "If everyone who disagrees with us is a bad guy, then anything we say must be good."

This approach to public criticism is most offensive when you consider the alternative: recognize the institutional flaws, correct course, and open up the debate.  In one word - deescalation.  Stop, breathe, respond.

I'm obviously talking about the Howard County Board of Education and their decision to renew the contract of Howard County's highest paid public employee - the Superintendent.  I have been avoiding this issue for two reasons: 1) Although I don't know her, I have had nothing but pleasant interactions with Dr. Foose, and 2) I have a great deal of respect for just about all of the current members of our Board of Education.

I am writing now because I am deeply disappointed and disgusted by what has become a public embarrassment.  I don't need to talk about mold, transparency, or racist videos to identify troubling aspects of how our school system is being run.  In just the past three months we have seen a HCPSS budget that has no chance of being passed , two out of the three members of the Board of Public Works (one of whom was the Governor) criticized our school system openly in a public forum, and public information act requests are being stonewalled on a near monthly basis.  In this context, it is downright baffling that not only was the Superintendent's contract renewed, but the public was essentially shut out of the process (in some cases literally).

I posted something last night and I believe it is true - It seems like the Howard County Board of Education has mistaken winning a vote for winning the issue.  That's what happens when public critique makes you insular.  You pack a room with supporters so you can hear their applause.  But you do something else too - you let all the outsiders sit together as they recognize they've been wronged.

Have a great Friday doing what you love.