Good Political Decisions Can Be Costly
By HENRY STERN
For nine years, we have been writing about New York City and State government. For the most part, when one writes a column, it is to call public attention to a situation which requires correction. Relatively few columns are devoted to the praise of an individual or agency, unless such good work has been bookmarked by those with authority.
This does not mean that we view the government as doing badly on the whole. If one were to do a thorough review, one would find different scores for different agencies, just as a report card could find a student strong in some areas and deficient in others. There are some leaders in government who possess exceptional merit, and there are others whose functioning is below par. Sometimes they are propped up by deputy mayors, City Hall staff, or their own deputy and assistant commissioners, who they either appointed or inherited, or were imposed on them by actors either seeking to help or undermine the hapless commissioner.
It also happens in government, and I assume in business, that there are honest people doing good jobs, who draw the disfavor of others who covet their offices, their lands, their staffs and the public attention the good guys may or may not receive.
A great deal of internecine warfare in city government is conducted in secret, because it is considered poor form to publicly attack anyone in the same administration, unless the mayor has given the signal for the dogs to bite. That is a highly unlikely eventuality, since almost everyone serves at the pleasure of the mayor (a few officials, like members of the Housing Authority, serve for fixed terms).
Some mayors want everybody to be part of one big happy family, but even in families there are conflicts between siblings. In unhappy families, children may stick together to protect themselves and each other from their parents, provided that the parents do not exacerbate matters by playing favorites. Problems of overlapping jurisdiction or territorial incursions can be brought to broader attention at the mayor’s cabinet meetings.
A problem faced by any chief executive is that he is limited by the information he receives, particularly from those close to him or who have access to him during the day. If one is in conflict with another commissioner, and the other fellow is at City Hall, or is in a field in which the mayor has particular interest, one is disadvantaged in any dispute because the mayor will have heard much more of the other fellow’s side of the story than he has of yours. One deputy mayor described the actions of his rivals as “pissing in the mayor’s ear.” The mayor may or may not realize that he is being worked over, depending in part on whether the smearer is as subtle as a serpent. Each actor presents himself as the devoted instrument of the mayor’s wishes. The trouble comes when the mayor is wrong.
Decent and honorable people serving in high office can be, and often are, victims of misinformation. A very important part of the skill set required is a keen sense of to what extent what you are told is likely to be true. The higher up one rises on the food chain, the less likely one is to be told the truth.
One must also consider the likelihood that if the people are going to throw you out of office if you act on the objective merits of a particular issue, you may desire to try to keep your job so you and your devoted and hardworking staff can continue the good work which has been shown in many other areas. Political self-immolation is not required over basically local decisions that generate strong emotions among those who disagree with your position.
We have discussed a number of aspects of the decision-making process in this essay, necessarily relatively superficially because of length limitations. We will return to the subject if our readers are interested. Let us know.