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Unintended Consequences of Policy Perspectives and Decisions

This Advisor column was originally published in December 2007.

"WHOOPS! – how could this have happened? This isn't what we intended!" As public officials, elected or appointed, all of us assume we are dedicated, well-intentioned and hard working. But the realities and pressures of governing, managing and politics can invite or pressure us into making decisions that produce consequences or results other than those we intended.

There are, in my experience, eight trapdoors through which we can fall into the quagmire of unintended consequences that may embarrass, frustrate or even harm communities. The challenge is to spot and avoid falling through these trapdoors.

The Eight Trapdoors to Unintended Consequences

  1. What we said/did/promised during campaigns.

    Each candidate runs as an individual making promises or comments reflecting one's intentions designed to persuade people that "I can change things for the better." But, once elected, "I" became a part of a body that makes choices by majority rule "we." The skills and comments that got one elected are not the ones necessary for a person to be an effective incumbent in public office.

  2. "I know it all" Syndrome.

    Being sworn into office, frequently to be sworn at later, does not make one omnipotent even if one is flushed with a sense of authority, power and success. In fact, competency in the office for which one runs frequently is not required to be a candidate for that office, . What is required is citizenship, residency, age and no publicized felony convictions. This is not a criticism. Our nation's founders did not want litmus tests that could keep people out of public office. But, it does mean that most newly-elected officials have a learning curve to transcend to be effective incumbents. Know it alls soon discover what Mark Twain observed: "It isn't what you don't know that gets you into trouble, it's what you do know that just ain't so!" Everyone thinks they know how to run a country, state, city, county. Not so, it is an acquired skill many people haven't mastered before entering public office. Learn to listen, learn and grow and this trap door can be avoided.

  3. Who is the "person" who runs our town or county?

    Folk wisdom just assumes some powerful person "runs" a community from behind the scenes. Ironically, there is a person who runs your city or county. Most people have the person's name wrong. The person who has authority is named Council or Commission. The city council or board of commissioners/supervisors is a body – a "legal person" possessing the sole authority to govern the community. This legal person is a single entity populated by human beings with the title councilor, commissioner, etc. It is important to remember each candidate, if elected, becomes a human organ in a corporate person (body) who has the authority to govern. People who think they "run" things frequently make rash decisions or alienate the others whose support and cooperation they need to get things approved and done.

  4. Political narcissism.

    Obsessive admiration of oneself may be an acceptable pastime in congress or the state legislature, but it wears thin and alienates relationships quickly in a city council or county commission because it can lead to grandstanding and using one's office as a platform for self-promotion, rather than conscientious service to a community. Decisions made for self-promotion, especially if made at the expense of a community, can cause really poor decisions yielding unintended consequences.

  5. Failure to honor the council/board-staff partnership.

    In reality, elected bodies are dependent upon highly competent professional staffs who can implement the policy decisions of the councils and boards. The partnership depends upon respecting the roles and contributions of the governing body (and its members) and the professional administrative staff. If the partnership is torn asunder by competitive or disrespectful behaviors, the intent of policy setters may in implementation yield unintended consequences.

  6. I was elected to do what people want!

    Well, what do they want? Some want one thing, others want something else or the opposite. In reality, one needs to listen to various opinions and then make decisions that are in the best long-term interest of the community as a whole. Being totally representational can pit one agenda against another; one value system against another. Ultimately, the issue is what is the most responsible thing to do? To paraphrase Garrison Keillor: "Every now and then you have to set aside your beliefs [and the wishes of others] and do the right thing."

  7. Doing the "right thing" in the "wrong place."

    Councils and boards have a variety of venues in which they learn, explore, deliberate and decide. These venues (arenas) are retreats, work sessions, and regularly scheduled meetings in which motions are made and votes taken. Each forum has a distinct purpose; e.g., retreats for goal setting, work sessions for exploration and analysis, and regular public meetings for disposition and legislation. The chart below illustrates these arenas:

    City Council/Board Performance Arenas (click to enlarge)

    If complex issues are rushed to closure too soon without adequate discussion in goal setting and work sessions, rash decisions can be made. My council, for example, in a hurry to get an issue decided, adopted a sign control ordinance that contained a requirement that all illuminated signs be extinguished at 9:00 p.m. Needless to say, it had a lot of unintended consequences, not to mention political "hell to pay." We quickly figured out how to correct that embarrassing major error.

  8. Ideology trumping reason and reality.

    Elephants and donkeys belong in political debates, but can cloud common sense judgment and options needed to address the real-world challenges of running a city or county providing vital services directly to their citizens. Decisions at the local level tend to require practical judgment and reasoned responses that seldom come from purely political ideology driven agendas. There is a reason that municipal elections in many if not most communities are not partisan.

The eight trap doors are easily avoidable. Yet every community has experienced its unintended consequences arising from policy decisions. I gave an example above about a sign code. Two interesting examples I witnessed recently are:

A city's voters about 20 years ago approved a citizen interest group initiated charter amendment forbidding major street reconstruction without a city-wide vote on each improvement project requiring city funding. Now the city has over 10% of its streets deemed unsafe with the number of unsafe miles increasing annually. The city's insurance provider has put the city on notice that it is concerned about liability consequences. Still the streets deteriorate and council can not fix streets requiring reconstruction as part of a comprehensive street maintenance plan.

Another city passed a food to liquor sales formula that establishments had to meet to retain a liquor license. Intent: get rid of establishments that sell a lot of liquor and pass off chips and hard-boiled eggs as food. The most popular restaurant in the city was nationally renowned for its mini-brewery and quality scotch bar (over 200 top brands) as well as its superb dining room, all of which flourished. But the restaurant ran afoul of the food to liquor ratio and was forced to close. WHOOPS! The city didn't intend to lose its best restaurant.

Other frequent examples emerge from growth management policies, tax codes, economic development programs, etc.

The best advice: Always consider the potential long-term unintended consequences that can result/emerge from our short-term policy decisions.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Carl H. Neu

Carl H. Neu writes for MRSC as a Council Commission Advisor.

The views expressed in Advisor columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.