Book Reviews: Lessons Learned



Books on shelf

Former Lawmakers and a Staffer Share Hard-Won Insights on Making Government Work Better

Sometimes when the going gets tough, you’re just not sure how to get going.

Like friends you can rely on for support, three recent volumes offer sound legislative perspectives from people who’ve been there. People who get it. People who have made a difference by working with others to get legislation passed or by finding ways to save money while maintaining high-quality government services.

Maybe one of these can be a friend indeed next time you need some sage advice.

Why Are You Here?

A Primer for State Legislators and Citizens
By Franklin L. Kury
University Press of America, $26.99

 “America’s state legislatures have never had more challenging work or been more important to the life of our nation,” writes Franklin Kury, a longtime member of the Pennsylvania legislature. His latest book, “Why Are You Here?” is a pep talk for state lawmakers and the constituents they serve—an effort to bolster the work of legislatures at a time when they need it most. Diligently navigating some of the states’ most pressing problems, Kury provides a concise, yet enduringly rich, source of knowledge and advice for anyone interested in the legislative process.

Kury, author of the 2011 autobiography “Clean Politics, Clean Streams,” brings 50 years of state legislative experience—14 as a member, 36 as a lawyer and government affairs specialist—to this slim, though weighty, volume. In just 100 pages, he covers a lot of ground, from the constitutional foundations of legislative government to the ethical dilemmas lawmakers are bound to face in office.

Addressing increasingly poor public opinion polls and calls for direct democratic practice, Kury reminds us that the legislator’s role is not simply to reflect his or her constituents’ desires, but to work for the greater good. He is an unabashed supporter of representative government, in the vein of Edmund Burke, the great Anglo-Irish politician whom he references several times. But he doesn’t dismiss contemporary calls for greater accountability. Indeed, he encourages the public to take an active role in the work of their legislatures, citing the influence of Pennsylvania music teacher Amanda Holt in that state’s Supreme Court decision calling on lawmakers to provide fairer, more efficient redistricting plans.

In line with that hands-on approach, Kury includes a “Legislative Toolbox” filled with resources and a selection of excerpts for those hoping to find or reawaken their “legislative spirit.” Whether consumed in an afternoon or consulted on a need-to-know basis, “Why Are You Here?” is both a trove of personal knowledge and expertise and a practical guide to the ins and outs of legislative practice.

—John Mahoney

Peak Performance

How Denver’s Peak Academy Is Saving Money, Boosting Morale and Just Maybe Changing the World. (And How You Can, Too!)
Governing, $24.95
By Brian Elms with J.B. Wogan

When most people think of government employees, the words “innovation” and “initiative” don’t come to mind. Rather, they think of the eternally long line at the DMV or the soul-crushing experience of obtaining a parking permit. But “Peak Performance,” by Brian Elms with J.B. Wogan, shows that these terms can and do apply when government employees receive training to innovate and are empowered to act on it.

This quick, entertaining read (under an hour!) uses the real-life example of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who realized that outside innovation consultants actually had little impact on innovation in the city’s government. To change that, he created Peak Academy, which over four years trained 5,000 staffers to reduce waste and improve efficiency by using lean production techniques. Elms, a veteran of numerous state and local government agencies, was hired to lead the effort.

If you think employees and their directors would beat a path to the training room door so they could make their department or program the innovation leader, you’re wrong. Elms describes the pitfalls he experienced and the lessons he learned. What he conveys best, though, is how the Peak Academy graduates saved millions of dollars and customer service hours for the city and county of Denver. And they did it by sticking to two simple rules: You can change only what you can control, and you cannot purchase any new technologies to do so.

State governments, California’s among them, are now applying these lessons. “Legislative offices and agencies would benefit from streamlining bill drafting, creating a visual process board, handling constituent communications, and otherwise increasing capacity to do more good and be awesome,” Elms said in an interview with State Legislatures magazine.

Brutally honest, humble and inspiring, this book, written with Governing staff writer J.B. Wogan, is a must read for anyone who wants to innovate within their organization or state agency.

—Karmen Hanson and Tricia Simmons

Finding Common Ground

The Art of Legislating in an Age of Gridlock
By Dave Bishop
Minnesota Historical Society Press, $16.95

Warning, this book contains words, like “negotiation” and “compromise,” that can make folks uncomfortable. It may be too much for some readers.

Following a fall election campaign in which much was made of outsiders, Bishop offers unapologetic encouragement to all who value the work of political professionals—the legislators, staffers and others who are informed about issues and are willing to work with their colleagues to get legislation passed.

That work is stymied at the state and federal levels by gridlock, Bishop writes, “caused by the excessive partisanship of individual ideologues and doctrinaire pressure groups that spend billions of dollars to influence elections. … I see little respect for the important process of genuine deliberation and group decision making on matters of common public interest. The solution is group work, the formation of alliances across chasms of political identifications and competing interests.”

Bishop knows a thing or two about working with others. He spent 20 years in the Minnesota Legislature, only six of them in the majority. Still, during his time in the minority, he guided more than 200 bills and amendments into law. Bishop dedicates chapters to the approaches that yielded his success, including building trust (basing alliances on respect and friendship, not political debts), sharing power (letting others take credit to move a good idea forward) and interacting with the media (treating them “almost as if they hold a gavel”). Each chapter includes real-world examples of how he used the approaches to help enact legislation.

Common Ground shows people really can get along when they want to.

—Kevin Frazzini

John Mahoney, Karmen Hanson and Tricia Simmons are NCSL staffers; Kevin Frazzini is the assistant editor of State Legislatures magazine. All are avid readers.

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