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My Ground Rules Senator Kirk Watson

Moving into my new position as the Founding Dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs, I’ve been asked about how I address public policy and how I intend to approach my role at the Hobby School. I intend to approach it the way I’ve always approached public service: with some basic principles that have served me well.

  1. Be willing to throw away labels. I believe we label each other — whether it’s friends or . . . acquaintances — far too readily. Too often, labels become an excuse not to hear what someone may really think, and to pretend people are a lot more shallow than they really are. My goal is to work with all interested parties, without regard to labels. I’m hopeful — with good reason, I think — that people will approach me the same way.
  2. Listen carefully and speak plainly. The key is to really listen, and to openly state a position. Politics is filled with people talking past one another or regurgitating platitudes. The best work comes from speaking openly, really listening, and avoiding pre-packaged talking points.  And be willing to experiment with new ways for people to hear each other.  It may not work to use the old “public hearing” because it’s too adversarial or there’s not enough time allocated or whatever the barrier.  Try something different.
  3. Follow the “84% Rule”. You’re not going to meet everyone’s concept of perfection.  So don’t try.  Don’t define “consensus” as 100% agreement.  That likely results in something unworkable and impractical or it give some person or entity too much veto power.  If I can come up with something that 84% of the public would look at and say, “That’s not exactly how I’d do it, but it’s pretty good and it’s progress,” then I’m probably going for it. I know I won’t always get unanimity, and if I wait to act until I get 100% support, there likely will be no action. Also, I try to not demand my concept of perfection. If I can get 84% of what I want, I’ll take it and run. (Why 84%? I made it up. And because that’s what I was reelected mayor with.)
  4. Be biased toward action. Too often in politics, people seem to fear failure, or the possibility that they’ll be upstaged by the next idea that comes along. I’d rather make a mistake trying something than make a mistake missing an opportunity.
  5. Never forget that hope matters. Public service should have goals of assuring hope and creating opportunity for happiness.
  6. Have a short term focus with a long term vision. One of the “gifts” of cancer is that I learned there may not be a tomorrow. So, I try to focus on achieving results right now, but in a way that benefits the long term. Both of those — the moment, and the future — are essential, but too often people lose track of one or the other.
  7. Know core values and assets, and be willing to admit weaknesses. I try to assess my values, assets, and weaknesses routinely. Clearly, this is a time to take that sort of stock.
  8. Avoid the nitpickers, naysayers and know-it-alls (okay, so maybe there are a few good labels). We all know those folks who kill good ideas by picking them to death, and who love reminding us how much smarter or holier they are. It isn’t called “negative energy” for nothing.
  9. Create new and different constituencies, and avoid creating unnecessary enemies. In the first place, even when I disagree with someone, there’s no reason to do it in such a way that they never want to work with me on something we agree about. I also try to look at an idea or policy position from another person’s point of view. It’s worth it when you can tweak a proposal to bring everybody — or, at least, 84% of everybody — on-board.  A “win” doesn't have to include the destruction of an opponent.
  10. Focus on the positive, even in situations that are difficult.  Too many people in public service today seem angry. I guess it’s probably easy to get cynical. But, the motivation for service shouldn’t be anger. Enjoy the service.  Service ought to be fulfilling and not a burden (at least not most of the time).

    And one more:

  11. Don’t take myself too seriously, even when the bull is really good.