The mayor of Halifax and the mayor of New York City make about the same salary... does that make sense?
In his insightful book LEADOCRACY (which I highly recommend) Geoff Smart makes a clear case: the problems of the day are caused by what he calls 'broken government'. Geoff argues that hiring more great leaders leaders into government is the way to fix broken government. This frames the task well: it's future oriented, it presupposes there is a problem to be solved and offers a real solution - more great leaders.
So, what might stop a great, proven leader from taking a stint in government?
In times of challenge and change we look for new ideas, new paradigms, and new ways of looking at things. In the management classic THE INNOVATOR'S DILEMMA Harvard professor Clayton Christensen argues that great, well-run, successful companies fail to innovate and eventually fall behind because the things they do to be successful with their current customers current needs fails at understanding and anticipating unstated and ambiguous future needs. It's even more true in government, which is defined by its rejection of any innovation which its voter 'customers' do not currently want or understand.
This is probably the most important of the "Four C's" that make great leaders avoid government:
- Citizen's antipathy to CHANGE... even, or especially, among those calling loudest for change.
- CONFIDENCE in their ability to make a difference in an organization with deep cultural problems
- CONFIDENTIALITY concerns about their privacy and exposure to unwarranted criticism (all "politicians" are held on low regard)
- COST of lost income
In my view the last one, Cost of Lost Income, is of the least concern, yet vexingly, gets ALL the attention.
A committee led by Gerry Walsh was recently struck in Halifax to study the issue. Here's their report.
Near the end of his life I spent an overnight flight to London sitting beside Dr. John Savage. By this time he had been 'deposed' as premier of Nova Scotia, ejected from government, his wife had died and he knew he too had cancer. Rather than sit or be bitter, Dr. Savage was on his way to Siberia to work on a Doctors Without Boarders project. One of the memorable things he said to me that night was that "being a politician should NOT be the best job you ever had." Who among our current crop of city councilors could we say that of today? I would venture... none. And this is a major problem.
We're not looking for career politicians. They're not able to take the innovative path and responsible risk we need in changing times. We're not looking for people who look at public service as the best job they ever had... or even as a job at all.
The main reason 'cost of lost income' should be least concern is because a term in government of 4 to 8 years, even at a very low salary, will make very little difference in a great leader's lifetime income no matter where they fit on the income scale. Besides, public service is fundamentally different than working in private industry. People should be motivated by a desire to help others, not by money. Public service has never been about becoming rich unless you are corrupt. It's supposed to be about serving the public, by definition, and the gratification is not monetary. The salary should be enough to pay the basic bills.
Why is the salary issue an ongoing problem?
Andrew Killawee recently asked if we could think of a past great government or leader in Nova Scotia we'd like to see back again. Examples do not readily come to mind. From a citizen's perspective the field of candidates we get is usually not as strong as we would like. Selecting the right candidate is challenging and often we are disappointed with whom we choose. Usually the only interaction we have with elected officials is when we are angry and aggrieved or looking for someone to take personal responsibility for a problem. In modern government personal responsibility is unheard of. Guilt and shame are divided down into small forgettable pieces even in the grandest failures, wastes and missteps. Look carefully at the job description for Mayor of Halifax (NS Municipal Gov Act Section 15) . It's a ceremonial position. The word 'responsible' is literally not in the job description. Because of the absence of real responsibility, especially at the most important times - along with absence of accountability, risk, and responsiveness - it is difficult for citizens to support almost any salary at all.
That higher salaries help attract the highest caliber of people, especially in a city where many expect to - and need to - earn high wages is not a compelling argument for average citizens. Councillors griping about long hours, email and phone calls is a thin argument, especially when it is our email, phone call or concern that is not being attended to in good time.
If elected officials were more enabled to make change in the community and in the culture of government organization; if they were held in higher regard by the community; if they were not criticized so broadly; if they were delivering quantifiable results and being responsible for change; then the issue of salary would be much less problematic.
From the elected official's point of view the 80/20 rule of management rules supreme, maybe more like the 98-2 rule. 80 to 98 percent of the elected official's constituents never make a peep, but 2 to 20 percent are insatiable and unsatisfiable. They would take up all the time in the world and elected officials are ill-prepared, untrained and actually unable to deal with their concerns. However, it's a rule of human nature that we all think we have it worse of than our peers, so rather than results, the outcome is simply a want for more compensation to compensate for all the troubles of the other "Four C's".
What possible argument could a politician legitimately have for a higher salary? The only argument I know is this: The cost of elected officials per citizen is so cheap it might as well be free. If the mayor earned $150k per year in a city of 400k that means it costs each citizen less than one cent per week to have a mayor. (150000 divide 400000 divide 52 = .7 cents per week). For any citizen to get truly offended by this cost on their taxes they would have to hold the Mayor in astonishingly low regard.
However, there are some aspects of the salary discussion that are bothersome and seemingly unfair.
What other employee gets to vote on their own salary?
Even more concerningly, we are electing these people to keep the cost of of government down. If their salary is tied generally to the cost of government in other places what incentive do they have as a group to do that? Worse, if their salary is tied specifically to the salaries of other government workers they have no incentive to do what is asked of them. In this regard it would make sense to tie their compensation to the average fulltime, parttime and unemployed worker salary OUTSIDE of government in Halifax. Many folks have a sense that part of the problem is that government work in general is not priced correctly.
In the end we shouldn't care too much what the current crop of council thinks at all. We're clear that this type of person is not the answer. We're not looking for better politicians, we're looking for great leaders and in the long run it will not be salary that is the main determinant of getting them, it is the other the "C's" that we should really be working on.
Pop economist, ex-Secretary of Labour and Canceller of public policy at UC Berkley Robert Reich recently said of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, “I’ve known Hillary Clinton since she was 19 years old, and have nothing but respect for her. In my view, she’s the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have. But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change.”
Likewise, we need to develop systems to attract the kind of candidates who can build the city we want to have - one that's right sized, local and going in the same direction as our economy - not one keeping the same old developer driven, "immigrants will fill empty condos", leisure-economy dream, road widening, petty politics, delusion of grandeur, big box government we've been saddled with since our misguided provincial government saddled our vibrant and diverse small unique communities with amalgamation, the cost of which remains untold. We need to concern ourselves with the rising generation and the shape of things to come. That this future city may need to be radically different than the one we now have is far outside the comprehension of the current council or their court.
We need to hang question marks on the way we're doing things. We need boorish expressions of doubt, not cheerleading. We need to concern ourselves with the most vulnerable among us. We need to believe that in spite of all our great wealth we can imagine and ask for more and better for those remaining on the outside. Many great natural community leaders have ideas, experience and the risk tolerance to take on the real responsibility. But they're not seeing a way in to the current system. They are working tirelessly for change in spite of of the government we have , most often for no pay.
Councillor salary is the least of their concern, and should be the least of ours.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.