By Richard Eckstrom,
We all have room to improve, and there’s something about a new, blank calendar that motivates us to do so. That’s why many of us recently made resolutions to better ourselves in some way — perhaps to exercise more or kick a bad habit.
For those of us in positions of public leadership a new year is a chance to reflect on how we can better serve the people. Here are four worthy resolutions – leadership goals for the new year — that public officials at all levels would do well to adopt:
– Be an advocate for transparency. Transparency improves the quality of government. It helps prevent abuse, makes problems easier to catch, and builds public trust.
Make sure it’s as easy as possible for people to see how their tax dollars are spent, how decisions are made, and how their government operates. Make sure people have easy access to detailed, itemized spending information. Hold discussions about important issues in public view, rather than behind closed doors. Ensure annual financial reports are published in a timely manner, and that information requests from citizens are answered promptly (and preferably free of charge.)
– Respect the citizen watchdogs. Just about every public entity has one — the citizen who attends every meeting, asks tough questions, requests information using open-records laws, and generally makes public officials’ lives a little less comfortable.
To politicians, these citizen watchdogs can be a pain. But they’re vital to good government. They hold politicians to account and provide needed oversight. And their persistent efforts occasionally unearth very real problems — such as water contamination, misspending, even corruption.
Unfortunately, these watchdogs sometimes find themselves in the crosshairs of their own government. That’s a shame. Citizens who take the time to become personally involved and engage in their government – even those who ask tough questions — deserve respect. They help make the system cleaner and healthier, which in turn makes their community stronger.
– Set an example of civility. It seems like a quaint notion in today’s climate, but there’s much to be said for civil debate. That’s how you persuade others to your point of view, after all. Those who believe in the strength of their positions shouldn’t fear a polite, reasoned exchange of viewpoints.
Leaders who commit to taking the high road will serve the public well. For those aspiring to elected office, keeping their campaigns positive and issue-oriented would be a good start. Positive campaigns help people make informed decisions and set the right example for constituents.
– Remember whose money it is. The power to spend citizens’ money isn’t to be taken lightly. People work hard for their paycheck, and many feel squeezed by their collective local, state and federal tax burden.
Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of the public sector is its casual attitude toward the spending of taxpayer dollars. They seem to forget whose money they’re spending. And our wallets are a little lighter as a result.
We could use more people in office who understand that it’s the people’s money, not theirs, and that dealing in taxpayer dollars calls for a high standard of stewardship. It calls for discretion, careful prioritization, and adequate oversight. Restraint is a virtue. Spending should be done in an open, deliberative process and with stringent safeguards against waste and abuse. And tax increases should always be a last resort, after belts have been tightened.
After all, every dollar we pull from someone’s pockets is a dollar they won’t have to pay bills, send a kid to college, take a vacation or save for retirement.
I wish you and yours much happiness, good health and success in 2022.
Richard Eckstrom is a CPA and the state Comptroller. He’s president of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers, and Treasurers.
By Richard Eckstrom,