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Some learning curve advice

idaho RANDY

In about three weeks new administrations will take over in two important Idaho offices – superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state. That means, or should mean, the incoming officials in those places will be busy right now getting prepared.

Offered for consideration a little advice, from an observer of transitions, for Idaho’s new statewide officials, SUPI Sherri Ybarra and Secretary Lawerence Denney.

1. Apart from maybe one or two personal advisors, keep the existing staff in place, for a while at least. Yes, you will have authority to replace them wholesale if you choose, and as you eventually find (as you will) people who ought to go, they can be shown the door. But for the moment, remember that they, not you, know how things work in this place, and by that I mean all the little bits and pieces which make these offices tick; both the formal procedures (and requirements) and the informal methods and pathways that help work get handled. In any office, governmental or not, these things take a while to suss out. You’re going to have a learning curve. Accept that and let your staff, which mostly will probably be eager to help inform you, guide you through the early steps.

No one coming in fresh from the outside will understand enough of that at first. But both state offices are empowered and restricted by a mass of laws, rules, legal decisions and more. Former Superintendent Jerry Evans, who probably understood the SUPI world better than anyone in recent decades, had a gift for explaining the inner workings of “the coalition” and “the formula” – central to the office’s operations – in startlingly clear fashion to people like legislators and reporters. But so complex was his subject that many people (such as me) could not maintain comprehension of it for more than a day or so; after that we’d have to go back for a refresher. The details of this stuff are more complex than they look from the outside. Respect that.

2. Spend as much time as you can in the office. Get a sense of the patterns, personalities and rhythms there before you have to run it yourself.

3. Find a few old hands and, if not bring them into the office, turn them into a kitchen cabinet, an advisory group. Collect some expertise you can trust, and some people who aren’t your natural allies so you’re not just entering an echo chamber, telling you what you want to hear. And then make use of what you hear.

4. Reach out to the constituencies. Both newcomers are, for different reasons, making nervous a lot of people who will be dealing with the offices. Best advice: Pro-actively reach out to them and establish a line of communication. That’s most critical probably in the superintendent’s office, where many of the “stakeholders” in Idaho education (yes, in fact should include everyone in the state) aren’t sure what to expect. Keep a regular line of communication going. Institutionalize communications. Go to them, and let them come to you. You don’t have to agree on everything (and the stakeholders may often quarrel with each other), but you will fare best if everyone knows where they stand.

5. Engage the public on your priorities. Do this with the public too – and that means among other things communicating through the news media.

Jobs like secretary and superintendent are in part inherently political (something the new superintendent may be reluctant to accept). That means doing some campaign-type things as part of the job: Communicating with lots of people, building alliances, finding out where the differences are and figuring out how to bridge them.

Done in a useful way, it’s complex work. You’ll need all the help you can get.

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