Elected Officials should trust, make sure they verify



“We need to trust our professional staff.”  It is a phrase you hear from a lot of elected officials who put a blind trust into government staff.  It is a tough phrase to hear as it is a signal that a policy decision is being deferred to staff and the taxpayer has lost their voice in what is happening in government.   

Frequently that phrase comes without adequate questioning of a staff recommendation or a real justification for voting. When it is a reason cited by an elected official for voting a certain way, you can be sure that the elected official failed to adequately spend the time on the vote and did not read, understand, analyze and question to make sure that money is being spent wisely. They just don’t have a good reason or background for their vote other than blind faith.

It is very true that there are a lot of government staff who are very knowledgeable and very professional. Government staff are frequently subject matter experts and have deep understandings of their area of expertise. I worked with many in government who are extremely smart and could school anyone in their respective fields.

Many times, however, there has been no experience outside of government for staff to draw upon. They are very much into growing their influence and abilities to accomplish professional goals in their subject matter. They can always use more resources, more money, more time and expand on more projects. It is human nature.

In the private sector, limited resources are the check upon a business’s employees who seek to accomplish professional goals. Unless a request is a vital part of a business plan, with an adequate return on investment, and can survive an owner or shareholder scrutiny, it will not be allocated resources and for sure it won’t be allocated resources that do not exist.

But government operates on the ability to grab unlimited amounts of money by raising taxes. 

It is up to the elected official to guard taxpayer money from a system that is built to grow unless restrained. It is up to the elected official to make sure that government resources are not being exploited and are used efficiently.  Most importantly, it is up to the elected official to make sure that he or she trusts, but most importantly verifies, recommendations from government staff as a representative of the taxpayer. 

It is so easy to just say “yes” to everything anybody asks for of government. But frankly, it is the lazy way to govern. It is so much harder and labor intensive to understand, question and do your own background research and it is very hard to say no. 

Elected officials should create an environment where government staff understands that they will defend their use of taxpayer money. They should create an atmosphere of understanding that they do not have unlimited resources and will not be rewarded for the inefficient use of taxpayer dollars. Finally, elected officials should make sure that government resources are prioritized.

Verification is the key to a good government and representative democracy, not blind faith.

Christine Robinson is executive director of The Argus Foundation.

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