What causes local government to go ‘off the rails?’ Here’s what Binghamton faculty found out
Public administration professors help research how to address missteps by elected officials
Whether it’s a lack of transparency in the government process, not listening to the needs of constituents or a crime like embezzlement, potential missteps by local elected officials could easily affect the communities they serve.
Sometimes a politician’s misconduct is intentional, while in other cases it’s due to a simple lack of experience. Professors Kristina Marty and Lauren Dula from Binghamton University’s Department of Public Administration have been studying these concepts alongside faculty from West Virginia University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to examine not only what causes these missteps but also assess their impact.
In July, they published an article in SAGE Journals detailing what happens “When Things Go Off the Rails” in local government.
“Local politics and what elected officials are doing in your community are the things that affect you in your daily life,” said Marty, public administration professor and senior associate dean in 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 are serving. You’re seeing them at church or the grocery store. So, when you get into things that break down trust, it can feel more like a personal betrayal by the elected official.”
The research used focus groups involving 132 local elected officials across North Carolina. Study participants discussed nearly 100 cases in which an elected official had been “derailed,” which happens when someone has failed unexpectedly (after officially taking office) due to intervening actions or events that interrupt the anticipated trajectory of their political career.
Local officials who participated in the focus groups viewed derailment through its consequences such as when a leader resigns from office or damages relationships with their constituents or other elected officials.
Study participants also identified “a range of problematic behaviors” that can contribute to derailment. The type of missteps that can derail an elected official aren’t necessarily things that would derail a leader in the private sector.
“A big issue we found was instances where elected officials just aren’t listening to their stakeholders, not engaging with their constituents as much as they should, ignoring them entirely or not keeping the stakeholders involved,” said Dula, an assistant professor of public administration.
Misinformation, whether through news outlets or on social media, was another area the research found could contribute to the derailment of local elected leaders. The misinformation could either come from the politician’s own words or the result of erroneous content quickly spreading online.
The research also found cases where leaders were derailed because they generally lacked media savvy. They either did not manage their social media presence effectively or failed to recognize the importance of media relations.
Another interesting aspect highlighted by the research, Marty said, was how much more intensive the scrutiny becomes with a local politician’s private life after they’ve assumed public office. Depending on the situation, she said, it could affect the public’s perception of that politician’s integrity.
For example, she said, a politician’s extramarital affair or substance abuse could easily diminish their public profile or even force them out of elected office. If similar situations took place in the private sector, she said, there may be consequences or attempts to address those issues without the leader necessarily losing their job.
In the research article, Marty and Dula also discussed how local leaders could easily be tripped up simply by not doing their “homework” and failing to understand aspects of good government, such as municipal infrastructure costs, public notification requirements or proper legislative procedures, among others.
“Local leaders can come from any background and get elected with zero to no government knowledge, and there can definitely be accidental derailments just from people not knowing how the system works,” Dula said. “They need training, not just in how the system works, but also on emerging challenges like media savviness or how to market themselves online. People interested in running for local office should do some research before stepping into these roles.”
To help elected officials avoid the range of potential missteps study participants identified, the research highlighted several strategies, including expanding orientation or training for leaders and encouraging career public servants to help educate newly elected officials about local laws, policies and procedures.
“I hope this study raises some awareness of the complexity of what it means to govern at the local level,” Marty said. “If it just makes someone think, whether they’ve been in office five minutes or 20 years and raise that kind of awareness, then it could really help people avoid these problems.”