Which Political Candidates Are Artful Decision Makers?

Thursday, March 6th, 2014 @ 1:18PM

March 2014 ~ article by Karen Bowerman, City Councilor, City of Lake Oswego
View article in The Northwest Connection 

This article is based on principles from Karen’s textbook entitled The Business of Leadership (NY: M.E. Sharpe 2011), co-authored with the chair of the Department of Public Administration in the College of Business & Public Administration at California State University, San Bernardino where she was Dean of the College of Business and Public Administration.

How many beds should the county jail have? What density will our neighborhood have? What source of funds should be used for road maintenance? What authority level should the person in charge of a public building have without improperly treading on individual rights? In what situations should the people have a vote on land use or taxpayer debt? How can job growth be achieved?

The scope of decisions made in local and regional public service is fascinating! We elect individuals to make an incredibly wide variety of decisions. Therefore they must understand and be comfortable with decision processes because voters trust them to make sound decisions in every area and to stand up for what is best for the taxpayers.

When voters consider which political candidates they trust as decision makers, what does that entail? Let’s give that question some context.

Decision making is part science and part art. The science of it is that there are recommended steps that practitioners should use. The art is that decision making takes place in an environment with problems imperfectly defined, with a limited time available and sometimes in a setting with rigid constraints.

The science and art of decision making has wide application — from an individual policy maker who is deciding how to vote, to a group of policy makers trying to come to consensus.

The science of decision making is clear-cut. Although the steps of the decision process may vary in number when explained, the concepts remain the same. First elected officials clarify the decision to be made or problem to be solved. This may sound obvious, but is oh-so-important and frequently omitted. Without clarity, elected officials confuse themselves and tend to plunge ahead anyway wearing blinders. Next, identify decision alternatives. Creative thinking is expected and alternatives that address the real problem are the only ones to consider. All the while, information gathering goes on about the context, costs and constraints. When elected officials understand the information, they should pass alternatives through the framework of their own principles and the decision should emerge. Finally, after implementing the decision, results should be evaluated so that corrective action may be taken.

There should be no mis-steps in the science of decision making because the process is known to work and the steps are easy to follow. They should be natural to officials whom we entrust as decision makers.

However despite the clarity of those steps, we know that the art of decision making is lost when some among us become confused while wading through uncertainty. Why? It could be for literally hundreds of reasons that divert focus. Examples of those reasons range from factors such as the elected official not having a clear set of principles that guide his or her thinking in evaluating information, to an individual responding to pressure such as threatened litigation that emerges. Particular individuals may simply feel overwhelmed and confused when the decision is moving toward closure, or they may be swayed by the last argument that happens to reach their ears – changing positions without a compass in reaction to the political winds that swirl about them.

Now, back to the question of voters considering which political candidates will have the skill and focus as an elected official to utilize the science and art of sound decision making. Voters can gauge which candidates they trust to make decisions and vote in their interest with clarity yet without getting bogged down. That skill set is beyond being a good person who cares.

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