Ashworth in discussing working with politicians stated that the most important job of a legislator is to craft bills and pass them into law. He further stated that they are so many bad bills introduced throughout the nation each year by politicians. This happens both in congress and at the state legislative level. To prevent bad bills from becoming law, the founding fathers in their wisdom drafted the constitution to ensure that before any legislator’s idea become law, such an idea must garner enough support from other legislators, pass both houses, before signed into law by the governor or president. The president or governor has a veto right. He can refuse to sign a bill into law. To override a veto, the two branches of congress or state legislator must gather extraordinary support. It takes two third majority votes by members of congress or state legislative body to override a governor or presidential veto. Ashworth went further to point out that because it takes a lot of support from other legislators to pass a bill into law, politicians in strategic positions device various means to prevent certain bills from seeing the light of the day, especially when they oppose such a bill. The various subcommittees are one of such strategic powerful legislative body. Ashworth describes how he so often get’s derided by members of a legislative subcommittee who disagree with his testimony. He describes how powerless he often feels in the face of legislators who seem to have all the powers and can vote on decisions that can directly impact his life. In one instance, a legislator voted to have his salary cut, because he testified against the legislator’s bill.
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After reading Ashworth’s letter about politicians, I immediately started rethinking my own personal decision to study public policy, especially if I find myself occupying the same portfolio as Ashworth. But in retrospect, I retorted to myself. In every profession, there are positives and negatives. We have to view Ashworth’s letter critically. Ashworth lamented when he wrote that if politicians are determined to embarrass you, they may show little or no regard to facts, figures or circumstances. In response to that I will say this. Unless the bill being discussed has an overwhelming support from members on both sides of the aisle. I believe that legislators on Mr. Ashworth side of the issue will stand up to defend him, speak up for him in order to make their case. They won’t seat still and observe a testimony that support’s their cause lampooned and lambasted. If certain groups of legislators are accusing Mr. Ashworth of being wasteful, and they resort to intimidation and falsification of figures to make their point, one wonders where politicians on the other side of the issue were during this testimony. In this letter, Ashworth dwelt so much on the opposition. Of course the opposition will be fiery in order to make its case. I am hopeful that politicians who stood for programs Ashworth was implementing will counter with force to ensure that such a program does not cease to exist. Ashworth never stated that his program was closed. I am sure the power of his testimony alone did not save the programs he implemented for the many years he served in public service. He did not have a vote, all he did was testify and showcase how beneficial the programs he implemented will be to the citizenry. The ultimate decision rested with the politicians who had the vote. One will logically conclude that the politicians that voted to continue to fund his program must have spoken in defense of their votes during such hearings. But he benignly mentioned such utterances in his letter. He dwelt so much on the views of the opposition. He failed to understand that the opposing view in politics is not always there to forestall growth, but rather to prevent excess and abuse.
However, it is important to acknowledge some of the issues raised in Ashworth’s letter. Sometimes the relationship between bureaucrats and politicians can be rocky and full of unnecessary retaliation. I was particularly irked by the actions of the legislator who resorted to reducing Ashworth’s salary as a payback for his testimony against his bill. I wonder why one legislator will have so much power to make a decision that is unfair to a public servant, who did not break any laws or flouted any policies. I will definitely question where the other legislators where, especially proponents of Ashworth’s programs when the decision to reduce his salary in the line item budget was made. If I had the opportunity to question Mr. Ashworth, I will put the following questions to him: Did he Mr. Ashworth take up the issue of his salary reduction with the appropriate authorities including key members in the senate who oversaw the reduction? I will also want to know what type of response he got back from them.
2. Explain the metaphor in the title and briefly explain how this is central to understanding how to work with the press, unpleasant people, leaders, governing boards, and bureaucracies.
Caught between the dog and the fireplug means that in the midst of the demands and inevitable inefficiencies associated with public policymaking and program implementation, a savvy public servant can shape policy, have fun and a successful career. That metaphor can be better described in the words of the philosopher, theologian Thomas Aquinas who once said: “virtues in medio stat” virtue stands in the middle. A policy maker should be able to find a reasonable middle ground in dealing with the media, governing boards, leaders and unpleasant people. To be an effective policy maker, one cannot be on the extreme. One has to find balance, but firm in making the right decisions, which may sometimes be unpopular.
Ashworth begins by stating that the media has an integral role to play in a democracy vis a vis policy making and program implementation. He further advised that it is the duty of the media to keep the public informed as to what is going on in the polity. If any government decides to keep all of its action a secret from the media, the ability of the people to control that government will cease to exist. But however, he advised that there should be a limit and timing as to what can be disseminated to the media. If the media has prior knowledge of governmental negotiation and reported such freely, such a report can hamper or even cripple a government project. An effective negotiation is one conducted behind closed door, after which the contents of such negotiation is then given to media. This will help protect the integrity of negotiation. A policy maker will be doing themselves a disservice if they choose not to inform the press of the outcome of a negotiation. It is important to understand as Ashworth states, that the media has a job to fulfill, and it is the job of the policy maker to make sure that the press gets all the information they want at the right time. This is if the policy maker has the answers to the question. The policy maker should be very candid with the media. If he cannot give the answers to the questions posed, he should state thus. Ashworth advised that it makes for better relation with the press if they know that the policy maker in question is always candid. A policy maker may take the semblance of an extremist or even a dictator if he knowingly chooses to keep pertinent information that is for public consumption from the press. There has to be abalance. The information has to be given at the right time, and not withheld out rightly.
The metaphor used in the title of the book is also very evident in what Ashworth calls humility. Ashworth asserts that as a policy maker, “a little humility helps”. For one to be an effective policy maker and program manager, one has to be open to criticism. Thus, a fair and accurate criticism from the media should not be seen as an attack, but rather as a time to rethink and re address the issues one is being criticized for. No one is perfect. Ashworth also mentions that another strategy used in courting the media is to be responsible with one’s criticisms of the media. If a policy maker finds out that a story was in accurately written by a reporter, it is always prudent to approach the writer first, before his or her bosses. By so doing, the reporter will be more accurate, and even check in with the said policy maker for accuracy in the future.
Ashworth in his letter to his niece about unpleasant people states that in public service one does not have the luxury to state exactly how one feels in the face of difficult and sometimes abusive circumstance. As a public servant one has to always find that balance not to come across as insulting or known to talk down on people. One has to be careful not to be branded an elitist. This brings to mind the metaphorical title of the book being reviewed. Ashworth states that an acceptable behavior is one set from the top to the bottom. Thus, a policy maker who is at the helm of a governmental agency sets the standard of behavior which invariably rubs off on his subordinates. Ashworth stated that rather than attack an unreasonable person who is propagating an implausible idea, it is sometimes wise to take a step back and let the situation unravel itself. He gave a shocking example of an entrepreneur who was trying to float a university at a low level of quality and performance. At a hearing designed to ensure that the state does not close the university, even the entrepreneur’s lawyer was startled as to the level of his client’s unpreparedness. The entrepreneur’s lawyer knew that his client did not have a case against the government. One can resolve unreasonable circumstances in public service by allowing those circumstances to expose themselves.
In dealing with those placed above you, one has to speculate or even find out what one’s leaders or bosses want. It is important to bear in mind that those in key leadership positions have their own wants and desires they will like to see accomplished. Most of them represent constituencies, and they search for ways to look good and gather support and votes among their constituents. According to Ashworth, a wise policy maker will try to craft policies that leaders can use and look good among their constituents. Of course the policy in question has to be legal and can be operable within acceptable practices. It is by so doing that one can motivate these leaders to support the ideas or policy issues he or she is looking to accomplish. In a lay man’s parlance it can be called scratch my back, and I scratch yours. Ashworth also discuss what he describes as subordinate leadership. Leading from the background or leading anonymously. Subordinate leadership can be used as a tool to make one’s self appear valuable in the sight of leaders. Thus, coming up with introspective ideas that will attract universal opprobrium is always commendable. First, it will make the leader look strong, insightful and attractive. This is exactly what happened with the Texas minority integration policy. One will assume that a policy maker, who has such attractive ideas, will continue to enjoy job security if not some form of promotion, which unfortunately comes with more responsibility.
Ashworth’s advice on how to deal with persons appointed to governing boards is the plain truth and is his advice is ad rem with everyday reality. Like everything else in life, it is always important to respect as well as gain one’s trust before you can convince them to support your idea or policy. Building trust and respecting members of a governing board means that they will almost always return the favor. Respect they say is reciprocal. Ashworth rightly pointed out that because of the respect he had among board members, they seldom disrespected him or his staff. On occasions when one a board member stepped out of line to insult him, other members stepped in to defend him. They stepped in to defend him because he had built a reputation of respect, candor, straightforwardness and discipline. Ashworth also hinted on how to deal with board members he labeled as” turkeys”. These are misfits. They tend to believe that they know more than anyone else including fellow board members. These are members who alienate other members. His advice on “turkeys “is to be polite. Let the counseling and admonition come from fellow board members and not you the policy maker. I can’t disagree any further.
Dealing with bureaucracies
In dealing with bureaucracy Ashworth advised that policy makers should use every tact with their wit to avoid any type of foot dragging that come with bureaucratic positions. Often times in bureaucratic positions one is confronted with preserving the status quo. Ashworth states that if the status quo results in bottle necks and unnecessary foot dragging, then the status quo has to be set aside to get your policy implemented in an orderly time and manner. The less bureaucratic an agency is, the more interesting the work place will be.
3. This book’s impact on your view of public administration as a career. Would you recommend the book to others? Why or why not?
The book is an expose of what public life is all about. Ashworth uses practical on the job experiences to illustrate the ups and downs of working in the public sector. Some aspects of his letters were pessimistic and scary. His letters about working with politicians and difficult people were the most disturbing to me. I did honestly ponder if employment in the public sector was worth the sacrifice given what he had gone through. I was particularly shocked that at the unethical behavior of the politician who went out of his way to cut the salary of a public servant who opposed his bill. But like I stated earlier, every profession has its ups and downs. It is up to the individual to make the best out of the situation. Some of the advice offered here can go a long way to sooth the pains, calm nerves and provide solutions on how to deal with specific subject matters. One can also take consolation in the fact that one is called to provide good service. It is important to note that if we believe that our government is not meeting our needs, we have the obligation to go into government and help rectify the anomaly. We cannot sit on the fence and expect the problem to fix itself. Despite the hurdles and difficulties of working in public service, there is also a reward. The reward that you are providing good service, that you are helping to change someone’s life. It is logical to state that public service from Ashworth’s perspective is not for the faint hearted no matter how you look at it. I can unequivocally add that it is indeed a calling, given the meager remuneration.
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Yes. I will most definitely recommend this book to anyone seeking to serve in the public sector. It is always good to know firsthand what one is getting into. The book can also serve as a handbook in the face of difficult and precarious situation. Will situations similar to what Ashworth detailed in his letters arise? Yes they will definitely arise. If they do, Caught Between the Dog and the Fireplug can serve as a veritable tool to help wiggle one out of difficult situations.
Ashworth, K., Caught Between the Dog and the Fireplug. Georgetown University Press. (2007)
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