January 21, 2005


The High-Likeability Floater

By Larry Stirling

Please allow me to proffer an additional term for your verbal toolbox for analyzing the problems of public administration. That term is “the high-likeability floater.”

This phrase accurately describes the character of various public officials elected and otherwise.

It is easy to recognize the “high-likeability floater” because the mention of their name is always followed by the knowing comment “and he/she is sooo nice.”

Hardly ever are public officials evaluated for their positive accomplishments or their willingness to confront the huge array of deeply rooted problems that we face.

Indeed, even identifying such problems let alone solving them brings retribution from those in the line of fire with the condemning words, “he is not very nice.”

Just look what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is enduring for attempting to modernize the American military.

For some reason, we voters allow a disconnect between the massive failure of our various governments and the people that we elect or they appoint to be responsible therefore.

Survey after survey shows that while Congress and the Legislature are held in extremely low esteem our local representatives, who are members of those body are thought of warmly.

How can it be that such people are wonderful here but when assembled in Sacramento or Washington D.C., they become collective bobble heads?

The problem with government is that it is a monopoly. Therefore it has no competitive discipline or other method by which to be evaluated.

It was San Diego legend Bruce Hazard that used to say, “You want to know what makes Hazard a great company? I can tell you, it is Daley!”

Long-time San Diegans remember when Bruce’s highway construction team went nose to nose with the Daley dynasty for the myriad highway projects that used to be built in San Diego County. The competition kept the two teams serving the public in the best possible way by holding costs down and boosting performance.

But since government brooks no competition (some say that is why it outlawed organized crime), there is no objective standard by which to evaluate the individual or collective performance until the latest failure becomes yet another notorious scandal.

Several years back, the County of San Diego was in big trouble just as the City is now. The Chief Administrator Officer (CAO) was eventually let go and an election occurred to change things. What were the changes? The CAO got promoted to head the largest County in the Country; one of the Supervisors was elected to Congress; and another elected to be Mayor of the City.

The Union-Tribune recently published just the latest front-page paean to a well-respected state legislator who has been “termed out,” that is, not permitted by law to run for that office again. That legislator both succeeded and preceded other legislators of exactly the same level of ineffectiveness.

The tenor of the articles about all three consisted of sycophants repeating testimonies to what amounts to the legislators “likeability” quotient. Such articles contained little or no mention of the various disasters that cumulated on each of their watches.

The “high-likeability” posture among elected officials occurs because professionals know that more elections are lost than won. Insiders know that most people vote against rather than for candidates which is why the continuing proliferation of negative campaigning.

Since most candidates are virtually unknown to the public, any candidate can be painted with a negative or “unlikable” image with enough campaign money. Therefore, the person that raises the most money, and therefore becomes the most beholden to special interests, can win the election by simply besmirching their opponent while painting over their own failures with ads called “puff pieces.”

There are hundreds of thousands of campaigns throughout the nation each year. It is impossible even for those of us who pay attention to them, to know who is best to elect in every race.

But, there is one rule of thumb that would serve the public well. If things are not going well, it is a good idea to remove those in charge.

We are cursed with too many “floaters” and not enough “accomplishers,” another term for your verbal toolbox.

Stirling represented the people of San Diego on the City Council and in the State Assembly and Senate. He retired as a Superior Court judge and now practices law and governmental relations in San Diego.

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