There’s a growing suspicion by many observers that we’ve over-professionalized local governments. For decades, citizens bucked against elected officials, especially those who were perceived to be incompetent. Citizens clamored for a more professional approach to government.
So we hired city managers, county managers and other professional people who specialize in pulling the levers of government bureaucracy.
That wasn’t all bad. Some of the demands on government today require highly specialized training to fathom. And nobody is against good quality management.
But the downside of this movement has been to have the tail wag the dog. These appointed professionals often control the flow of information to their governing bodies and jealously guard that data. Professional managers realize that knowledge is power and power gives them the ability to better manipulate their elected overseers.
One of the ways they do that is through what has become an abuse of “retreat” meetings. Local governments leave town to spend two or three days conducting the public’s business out of the prying eyes of local citizens. This began as an occasional event to do “long-term” planning, but has now become ingrained in most governments’ annual agenda.
Professional bureaucrats love these meetings. It’s easier to manipulate the bosses when you do it away from a room full of citizens watching your every move.
Another “professional” impulse has been for governments to attempt to limit public comment at their meetings. School systems are the worst abusers of this. They carefully control their agenda and often discourage parents from speaking out at school board meetings.
But other governments are guilty as well. Professional managers hate unscripted comments at a meeting. They can’t control the agenda with pesky citizens speaking out.
The main concern of many professional managers is to make sure their own elected officials exist in a state of harmony. As “professionals,” they detest conflict, especially conflict between their bosses that happens in the public eye. So they guide elected officials into keeping dissension behind closed doors, out of the public view. They promote retreats as a way for officials to “know each other better” to build a bulwark against internal disputes. And they seek to keep the public at arm’s length by managing the “public comment period” at meetings.
This controlled atmosphere is a clever way professional managers can massage that message, build alliances, stroke egos and keep the public horde away. That serves to increase the job security of the “professional” in charge. Whether or not it promotes the public’s interest is a secondary consideration.
To an extent, we’ve gotten what we asked for in “professional” governments. We do have clever people who know how to get things done.
The problem is, these “professionals” hate to do their jobs out in the open where we can watch them.