What drives local government to “go off the rails”?

Whether it’s a lack of transparency in the government process, failing to listen to constituents’ needs, or a crime like embezzlement, potential missteps by local elected officials could easily affect the communities they they serve.

Sometimes a politician’s misconduct is intentional, while in other cases it is due to simple lack of experience. Professors Kristina Marty and Lauren Dula of Binghamton University’s Department of Public Administration studied these concepts alongside professors from West Virginia University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to examine not only the causes of these missteps, but also to assess their impact.

In July, they published an article in SAGE Journals detailing what happens “When Things Go Wrong” in local government.

“Local politics and what elected officials do in your community are the things that affect you in your daily life,” said Marty, professor of public administration and senior associate dean at the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA). “Compared to the national level, in local government you are often very close to the people you serve. You see them at church or at the grocery store. So when you get into things that break trust, it can feel more like a personal betrayal on the part of the chosen one.

The research used focus groups involving 132 local elected officials across North Carolina. Study participants discussed nearly 100 instances in which an elected official was “derailed,” which occurs when someone unexpectedly fails (after officially taking office) due to actions or of intermediate events that interrupt the planned trajectory of his political career.

Local officials who participated in the focus groups saw the derailment through its consequences, such as when a leader resigns from office or damages relations with their constituents or other elected officials.

Study participants also identified “a range of problematic behaviors” that can contribute to derailment. The kinds of missteps that can derail an elected official are not necessarily things that would derail a private sector leader.

“A big problem we found were instances where elected officials simply don’t listen to their stakeholders, don’t engage as much as they should with their constituents, completely ignore them, or keep stakeholders engaged. “, said Dula, assistant professor of public sciences. administration.

Misinformation, whether through the media or social media, is another area that research suggests could contribute to the derailment of local elected officials. Misinformation can come either from the politician’s own words or as a result of misleading content spreading rapidly online.

The research also found instances where leaders went off the rails because they generally lacked media literacy. Either they haven’t managed their social media presence effectively, or they haven’t recognized the importance of media relations.

Another interesting aspect highlighted by the research, Marty said, was how much more intense scrutiny becomes with a local politician’s private life after he assumes public office. Depending on the situation, she says, this could affect the public’s perception of this politician’s integrity.

For example, she said, a politician’s extramarital affair or drug addiction could easily lower his public profile or even force him out of elected office. If similar situations occurred in the private sector, she said, there could be consequences or attempts to resolve these issues without the leader necessarily losing his job.

In the research paper, Marty and Dula also discussed how local leaders could easily get trapped simply by not doing their “homework” and understanding aspects of good government, such as the costs of municipal infrastructure, public notification requirements or appropriate legislative procedures, among others. others.

“Local leaders can come from any background and be elected without any knowledge of government, and there can certainly be accidental derailments just from people who don’t know how the system works,” Dula said. “They need training, not just on how the system works, but also on emerging challenges like media literacy or how to market themselves online. Those interested in running for local office should do their research before taking on these roles. »

To help elected officials avoid the range of potential missteps identified by study participants, the research highlighted several strategies, including broadening leadership orientation or training and encouraging public servants. to help educate newly elected officials on local laws, policies and procedures.

“I hope this study will raise awareness of the complexity of what it means to govern at the local level,” Marty said. “If it just gets somebody thinking, whether they’ve been in the job for five minutes or 20 years and raises awareness for those kinds of people, that could really help people avoid those issues.”