Author: Richard D. Morris
March 31, 2019
In 2004, after completing 26 years of active duty as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, followed by two years as a member of the federal Senior Executive Service, I was hired as the county manager for Stokes County, N.C. Since that time, I have served nine of the past 15 years as the Stokes County Manager. I retired from the county manager position in January 2018 and have now been elected as a county commissioner for Stokes County.
From the beginning of my time with local government, I’ve been concerned with the lack of public participation in local government and the resulting lack of qualified individuals being elected to critical legislative positions such as county commissioner.
If you picture local government as a chain, the county commissioner can easily become the weakest link in the chain.Unqualified elected officials might be offended by what I am about to, qualified ones will not.
I’ve created the Upside-Down Pyramid concept to illustrate why local government, which in this case includes the public school board, is designed to fail unless most of the voting public is directly and regularly involved in local government scrutiny and oversight, both at the voting booth and especially after candidates are elected to local commissioner boards, city councils and school boards.
An informed and engaged electorate is critically important in eliminating negative outcomes produced by the Upside-Down Pyramid, which is present anytime a majority of the elected board members are unqualified to perform their functions. If the county manager’s first question on each new project or budget item is, “Will it be possible to keep the commissioners from screwing this project up?”, the local government is most likely experiencing the Upside-Down Pyramid.
Let me describe the Upside-Down Pyramid concept:
• Local governments are made up of numerous departments providing an array of complex and critical services including law enforcement, health care and emergency medical services, child and adult protective services, emergency 911 communications, tax collection, animal control, participation in public education and more.
• Most of these services are performed by smart, well-educated and highly experienced professionals – a critical requirement due to the complexity and nature of the work being performed.
• The organizational structure in local government mirrors a traditional pyramid, where entry-level workers are located at the bottom or base of the pyramid, and positions requiring greater experience, education and expertise (i.e., the chief operations person such as a county manager, city manager, or school superintendent) are located at the top of the pyramid.
• To move from the bottom to the top of the pyramid normally requires specific and continuing education, applicable experience, intelligence (including common sense), and a proven track record.
This process mirrors the normal organizational progression for large and small businesses, as well as governmental organizations, including the U.S. military. It's the logical progression one would expect a successful business or government entity to adopt to ensure that the most highly qualified individuals are running the organization, along with qualified individuals at each supervisory level within the pyramid to support the total organizational mission and structure. This is a proven model that works well.
In local government, the traditional pyramid as described above exists for regular employees up to and including the county manager and school superintendent. But its effectiveness becomes corrupted if it has the Upside-Down Pyramid’s unqualified majority of elected officials ruling over it. Since, in this case, the Upside-Down Pyramid is located at the top of the traditional pyramid instead of the bottom where unqualified or entry-level personnel would normally be located, you have a board majority of elected officials who are totally unqualified who are in charge of critical aspects of the local government organization.
These unqualified part-time elected officials such as county commissioners, city council members and school board members serve on boards that have total budget and policy authorities over the local government. If they make up a board majority, then you have the Upside-Down Pyramid.
As I stated earlier, these unqualified part-time elected officials are often the weak link in the chain of local governmentwhen they constitute a majority.
Since they have complete budget and policy authority over the organization and the organization’s well qualified professionals who operate in the traditional pyramid, the organization and its traditional pyramid now become corrupted by the Upside-Down Pyramid at the top until a qualified majority of elected officials can be returned to the board by the voters.
The enormous problem we now have is that with the Upside-Down Pyramid, none of the normal mandatory employment qualifications must be met for those who sit in elected positions.
To occupy these positions, one needs to only pay a small filing fee and win an election. This leaves the strong possibility of having part-time elected officials who are lacking in the education, applicable experience, intelligence and common sense that is needed to successfully handle the policy and oversight complexities of the local government organization.
Some of the smartest people I’ve ever known had little or no formal education, but those are not the type of people I’m referring to when talking about unqualified elected officials. I’m talking about elected officials who often are not interested in taking advice or pursuing continuing education and training because they don’t have the insight to realize they need it. In other words, they don’t know, and they don't know what they don’t know.
In many cases, these elected officials would not even pass the screening requirements for an employment interview for any position in the organization which they oversee. Oddly enough, just the opposite is usually true for full-time local elected officials (such as a sheriff or register of deeds), who work for the same local government organization, but have a totally different perspective on local government policy. The big difference is that the full-time elected officials have total operational responsibility for their departments within the local government organization. The part-timers show up a few times per month and then leave.
It should also be noted that there are three common threads that often characterize the unqualified part-time elected official who sits at the top of the Upside-Down Pyramid:
1. The first common thread is a large ego, which tends to worsen the already dysfunctional leadership and oversight provided by the unqualified elected official.
2. The second common thread is a tendency to “monkey” with the personnel hiring process and hire friends, and sometimes family, whether those individuals are qualified or not. This demonstrates a blatant disregard for Equal Employment Opportunity and fair/ethical hiring practices, which normally ensure the most qualified individuals are hired for positions in the organization. This practice is unethical, dishonest and significantly increases liability for the organization.
3. The third common thread is a desire to micromanage the local government professionals when the part-time elected official is clearly not qualified or prepared for this task. This category of elected official often distrusts the qualified professionals and exhibits signs of paranoia that things are being kept from them. This occurs because they are “in over their heads,” which tends to make them very defensive and overly aggressive at times.
What organization, other than local government, would devise an organizational scheme such as the one described by the Upside-Down Pyramid concept, where organizational dysfunction and failure are almost guaranteed by the presence of unqualified individuals occupying the most critical leadership, policy and oversight positions in the organization?
So, what can be done to resolve the problems caused by the Upside-Down Pyramid?
• Local government needs to receive constant scrutiny from the voters it serves. It is the level of government closest to the people and the easiest to influence by engaged voters, and arguably it is the most important level of government. The Upside-Down Pyramid clearly illustrates why local government may not be functioning as well as the public perceives it is if they are not paying attention.
• It is critically important that local voters weed out unqualified candidates before they are ever elected. If this does not happen, then the citizens are left with an inefficient local government that in the name of causes like misguided or misunderstood conservatism instead of common sense conservatism, or other political ideologies, waste their tax dollars through bad business decisions, inefficiency and petty behavior. In addition, unethical and sometimes illegal hiring decisions made by unqualified elected officials then result in the hiring of even more unqualified personnel into critical positions, which can cripple the operations of the organization.
If everyone who ran for local government office was well qualified to serve, the Upside-Down Pyramid would not be an issue. But unfortunately, it’s often a “roll of the dice” on who gets elected.
What is desperately needed is a more engaged and informed electorate that votes only for qualified officials to fill these critically important part-time, elected positions. Otherwise, local government will always suffer at the hands of unqualified elected officials who, on their best day, could not run a lemonade stand.
Bright sunshine on the improper actions of elected officials is the best cure for bad government!
©Richard D. Morris 2019