Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Work, Wonks and Worship

The next several posts will consider how work and politics intersect. I'm drawn to this topic precisely because, for the past week, work has kept me from thinking about anything like it. As a nation, we have been debating moral questions as if they are distinct from economic ones and as if Americans spent more time at worship than at work.

How might our work experiences influence how we view who should benefit from public policy? If legislators run their own businesses, are they more likely to favor business interests over the interests of employees, the poor and public sector workers? Will elected officials who have never worked for a large corporation be more or less sympathetic to the interests of these companies, and how will they make their judgments if none of their peers have this experience, either?

Recently, I spent three full days with 100 managers attending a company retreat. While I have been working with corporate clients for more than 17 years, and spent a prior decade in a Fortune 100 company, I am rarely in such close and prolonged proximity with an alien business culture. That is, a culture other than the one I created and continue to nurture in my own company.

These people were not part of a typical corporate enterprise because their company is employee-owned and engaged in scientific-related work. They were also more predominantly white and male, compared to many of my other clients. A third of the group had recently joined by acquisition, and they were not hard to pick out because they were likely to be agitating for change. But all in all, this was a remarkably cohesive community, welcoming to an outsider. They were used to solving problems together, united by a common purpose, and very likely to achieve it.

That isn't how we tackle big challenges in the public sector, and one reason may be that we simply don't have many people like them in our legislature. It's evident that corporate professional and managerial experience is poorly represented in our legislature; there's no reason to think Minnesota is atypical in its occupational makeup.

Here, for example, is the representation of the top five occupations in the 67-member Minnesota State Senate:
14 Law—20.9%
14 Business—20.9%
8 Farming—11.94%
6 Financial services—8.96%
4 Legislators—5.97%

Based on House-reported numbers, the similar breakout of its 134 members is:
21 Educator—15.67%
19 Attorney—14.2%
18 Business 13.4%
10 Legislator 7.46%
8 Retired 5.97%

The "business" label doesn't reveal much about specific employment or professional experience. How many of these business people work for one of the state's larger private sector employers? Note that half of all non-farm employment in Minnesota is in companies employing 100 or more, so we might expect a few representatives from these ranks.

Bear with my temporary bout of wonkishness for another minute. I actually cross-checked the state's summary data and looked at the House Election Directory, which reports occupation by member. Still not very revealing, except that it's clear business people from rural Minnesota aren't employed by the corporate titans.

A more precise picture emerges from the Campaign Finance Board's reports, which disclose the elected officials' financial interests, including occupation and employer name. This report reveals that "business" representation in the House is skewed toward sales people and small business owners. Two reported income from relatively low-level jobs with larger employers: Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) is described as a business analyst for Target Corp. and Rep. Pat Garofalo (D) is a network engineer for Allianz Life. But there were no managers, directors or vice presidents to be found.

So what does this mean?

We are being governed largely by people who have sought careers away from large, complex enterprises. By people who don't do well with hierarchy or supervision. Who have businesses that either don't require their full-time attention or are barely ongoing concerns.

Small business owners, insurance agents, educators, attorneys and farmers bring valuable experience and perspective, but they simply don't deal with the same issues or levels of complexity faced by the larger employers in the state — let alone the Fortune 1000 companies like Medtronic, Honeywell, St. Paul Travelers, Target, United Healthcare, Northwest Airlines and U.S. Bank.

Where are the big picture thinkers in public office, and where did they learn to think? The average non-profit board has more diverse and experienced members than the state legislature.

How does running a main street law practice, grocery store or heating and air conditioning shop relate to the concerns of the multinationals headquartered in the state? How likely are you to have worked closely with gay professionals as a homemaker or in a family-owned business? How concerned will you be about public transportation if you are a farmer? What are your concerns about maintaining an educated workforce if you're a Bible school grad who has made a decent living selling real estate? If your church prayer group is bigger than your company, why wouldn't it have a bigger influence on your view of what normal families are like?

More to come....

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