By Scott Jennings
This article originally appeared in the Courier-Journal on December 31, 2014.
This year, I had the privilege of graduating from Leadership Kentucky. The program brings together about 50 Kentuckians for two or three days per month for seven months, exposing professionals from varying walks of life to issues and challenges facing the Commonwealth.
Topics covered included corrections (visited the State Penitentiary in Eddyville); Kentucky’s military presence (repelled with the 101st Airborne Division in Ft. Campbell); agriculture (saw the fabled hemp plots at Western Kentucky University’s farm); health care (experimented with robot arms used in surgeries); energy (toured an underground coal mine); and education (I wrote about that experience earlier this year), among others.
At each session we heard from policymakers, industry leaders, and academics. Our class asked tough questions, and not every speaker was terribly forthcoming or prepared for the pointed questions and observations. State Auditor Adam Edelen, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, St. Elizabeth Healthcare CEO John Dubis, John Small of Alliance Coal, state economic development official Mandy Lambert, and prison warden Randy White stood out as presenters who were among the most prepared and candid. Our class also enjoyed the political panel presented by the University of Kentucky’s Al Cross and commentator John David Dyche.
The opening session back in May created a quite a memory. Our sequestration at the 4-H Conference Center in Jabez (near Lake Cumberland) involved a leadership training game that forces conversation about how different segments in society communicate with and treat each other. I won’t spoil the game for future participants other than to say that a lesson learned – perhaps too late for some – is that a rising tide lifts all boats. The game reveals our internal prejudgments and reminds not to overlook those with whom we have little contact.
Leadership Kentucky participants forge bonds that create meaningful discussions about challenges facing people from varying professions. It is easy to become cloistered in the worlds we build for ourselves, interacting only with those who share our circumstances. I applied to Leadership Kentucky to fly outside of my own comfortable orbit and meet some new people who do things I don’t do and live in places I don’t often visit. The program exceeded my expectations in that regard.
The lesson I took from Leadership Kentucky was a reminder to listen to people who have a different perspective, to pay attention to communities in which I don’t live, and to keep people in my circle who generally disagree with my political point of view.
When I served in the White House under President George W. Bush, I played a role in finding people to serve in various positions in the government. A senior staffer once told me that a challenge for any administration when looking for appointees was to not simply default “to people you find within a three block radius of the White House.” I worked hard to reach beyond the Beltway for people to join the Administration; I made it my mission to find folks who might otherwise be overlooked and give them a chance to serve.
Participating in Leadership Kentucky reminded me of that experience, and reinvigorated my belief that all of the answers to our public policy challenges won’t be found by just talking to those who live within a few blocks of a government building.
To be sure, I greatly value the experience and expertise of those who make their living in and around government. But there are many people out there who can tell you how exactly how policy affects their businesses and lives, yet we never think to ask them for their opinion. Those we overlook may not know how to inject themselves into the process, and those already involved may not realize how much expertise is just a phone call away.
A challenge for the next governor – and next President, for that matter – will be to implement a personnel process that brings into government people who have substantive ideas and observations grounded in real world experience, but perhaps lack the designation of having been there, done that. Leadership Kentucky and programs like it can serve as a training ground for new policy experts, people who perhaps never considered public service but might if only someone would ask them.
I’ve been involved in politics and public service for nearly 15 years. In that time I have noticed a troubling development—fewer and fewer people that you would call the best and brightest actually want anything to do with it. Many are fearful of it, as the unnecessary and destructive trend of criminalizing politics makes it seem risky and even dangerous. Many are disgusted, wondering if any one person’s participation really matters.
But I believe the best and brightest are still out there, waiting to be asked, hopeful that they can make a difference in their state and nation. Our political leaders need to find them to inject fresh capital into the marketplace of ideas, and to renew our collective trust in the governments that consume so much of our personal incomes.
Author’s note: the nomination process for the 2015 Leadership Kentucky class is open. Visit www.leadershipky.org to learn more.
Scott Jennings is a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.