Welcome to 2021 — and potentially your first big headache

With the holidays now behind us, more and more constituents are learning a small group of their government leaders took advantage of the December break to travel abroad, some for what they deemed reasons that were necessary, others simply for vacation.

Their travel comes even with government admonitions to stay put, stay home, stay within your bubble. Being “outed” has many of those nabbed scampering for the safety of home, public apologies and even a few resignations and firings.

But all this out-of-country, and even out-of-province, travel has proven to have become a burden for federal and provincial governments and parties as well.

Which brings us to local governments — those administering municipalities, regional districts, school districts and others.

Surely, with so many hundreds engaged in local governance, a few councillors, board members, administrators and others will have strayed and now find themselves hiding in the travel closet and wondering if they might be outed.

And, now, slowly, were finding out that’s exactly what has happened as local politicians across the province are being castigated — in some cases, one might argue, unfairly.

  • In Castlegar, Mayor Bruno Tassone has resigned, citing “backlash and anguish” for reportedly visiting a family cabin two hours away.
  • The Vancouver Sun is reporting numerous municipal officials travelled for suspect reasons over the holiday break, one of its writers opining “the personal holiday travel plans of public figures are not normally newsworthy. But this is, of course, not a normal time.”
  • A Victoria city councillor apologized for traveling to Somalia over the holidays.

What should local governments be doing to manage what will likely be a lingering early-spring issue as one by one “the latest” wayward traveler is outed? Well, it certainly isn’t to hunker down and hope everything blows over before your organization gets swept into the rising storm.

The solution, StarNorth suggests, is for organizations to be proactive and encourage their members to walk out of the closet before they find themselves dragged out — first informing their peers and then constituents.

As an aside, those organizations that can report all senior members of their local government did what was appropriate and set a proper example for their constituents have an opportunity to build some political capital and brand currency. A quick report to constituents that their senior team is leading by example will do wonders for public morale as the local community deals with the pandemic.

But as a mayor or senior administrator doing a quick canvas of your board and leadership team — something local media otherwise is likely to do for you — is the first step to resolving a potential issue quickly and appropriately.

Proactively admit the wrongdoing

If your roll call turns up a member or two out of line, encourage them to participate with the organization in admitting their wrongdoing — first to their peers and staff team, then to constituents.

Help them draft a proper announcement of their wrongdoing. And, if your Council or Board is onside, have peers stand with them.

A board or council standing together is an effective image that shows support for those who strayed and indicates the organization is taking the matter seriously.

Short of resigning, the most painful way of admitting wrong is to make a sincere — or what we call authentic — public apology.

But as one political pundit notes, constituents are smart and perceptive: they can smell insincerity and calculation. The half-baked apology that includes excuses or language that the apology is intended “for anyone who was offended” isn’t going to cut it in an age of lingering death and careful instruction from health authorities.

“When you apologize by saying, ‘to anyone who was offended,’ it sounds insincere. It throws the apology back to the people who were offended or harmed,” says Edwin Battistella, an English professor at Southern Oregon University who is also the author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.

“I did wrong and I sincerely apologize for my mistake,” should be the extent of an apology.

Show some shame

What should be included in the announcement is taking responsibility for the action. A lot of the scholarship on apologies comes down to this: when someone does something wrong, they have to allow for some shaming, not for themselves, but for what they did.

A properly contrite leader will provide their example as instructive, walking through where they went wrong — but not offering excuses — and encouraging others to “not do as I did” — especially since the leader’s action might indicate to constituents it’s OK to flaunt proper pandemic practices.

An actionable change

Sounding sincere and ashamed can help. But in politics, saying “I’m sorry” often doesn’t mean much if the person apologizing doesn’t offer tangible examples of personal growth or change. Promising to be better or different is appropriate. Acting on that promise is critical.

That doesn’t mean the leader should become an evangelist for proper pandemic practice, but they certainly should now be enlightened and consistently share that light with constituents.

To err is human, that much we know. But if you are going to apologise, you’ve got to do it right.

You likely already have a pretty good indication how constituents are going to respond should you uncover some unfortunate decision-making. They’ll be looking for some way to punish those who strayed, frustrated with the “do as I say, not as I do” mentally.

By and large, though, they are willing to forgive and move on if the situation is handled properly.

And properly means proactive.