From Elections to Engagement

Being an elected official is a big and significant job …. But, at the end of the day,  it is a job like any other. I believe that the same is true for all elected positions. While I have a tremendous respect for any person who chooses to run for office and serve their communities, I view them as  being public servants and in the truest sense, American workers.

Men and women in elected positions should be seen as American workers because they have been (sel)elected by their peers to work to make their neighborhoods, cities, states and our nation better.

Like most other jobs in this economy, the application and interview process for these positions can be rigorous. Prior to election day, candidates interview for elected positions in advertisements, town hall meetings, debates, and anywhere else that a potential voter can see and hear them. Candidates tout their credentials, explaining to all who will listen why those credentials and their vision make them a better fit for the elected position than other candidates in the running.

Finally, when election day arrives, people head to the polls to select the best man (or woman) for the job. No longer a candidate, the elected person will move into the position and begin to do the work to make reality that vision she (or he) laid out in their campaign. Their success in the job depends heavily on their ability to realize their vision. Ultimately, voters decide whether they can keep their job by reelecting them or whether they should give that job to someone else.

But wait, is this really how other American jobs work?  Usually, a worker is hired and along the way his manager – read the person that hired him or her – is going to manage the employee. Sadly, this is where American voters have gotten it wrong in recent years. Once a person is elected to office, too often voters haven’t acted like the hiring managers. I can’t think of any job where a person is just given the keys to their new office and are told by their boss, “I’ll be back in two or four years. Good luck!”

I know there are some frustrated people across the nation who are fed up with some of their elected officials and plan to vote them out in a few days.  I speculate that these dissatisfied voters who feel their incumbents didn’t meet their expectations are like the unusual, almost never heard managers that leave employees on their own after the first day and never come back until they think they want to hire someone else. Voting someone out of office is fine, but should that be the first resort? Our jobs as Americans, is not just to put someone in office, but to support that person while he or she is in that position. Every citizen must pay attention and sound off in the governance of our cities, counties, states and our nation, all year long, not just in the months leading to and on election day. Elected officials are American workers who should be held accountable for their work 365 days a year. The future is in our hands as voters and we empower those we elect with the privilege to work to make that future a reality.

During campaign seasons I appreciate the emphasis being put on getting Americans to participate on election days, which is wonderful, but more attention needs to be given to  sustainable civic engagement.  Discourse on civic engagement moves beyond  getting a citizen to check a box for a candidate on election day. Sustainable civic engagement involves getting that citizen to call, email or write a letter to  elected officials during their terms to check on them and to support the vision that they selected through the election!   Further, meaningful civic engagement and democracy building moves beyond training people from disenfranchised communities to register voters and knock on doors for a candidate to training more people from those communities to run for office, be the candidate and knock on doors in support of their own campaign.

The conversation about how and who is the best person to govern our local municipalities and our nation will intensify between now and election day 2012, but my greatest hope is that the day after election day people will still be having those conversations and remain vigilant  and active on all the days between then and the next election day.

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