Note: This post is expressly written for public servants.
I spent 31 years in public service. Yes, I was a bureaucrat. Just the mention of the “B” word makes a lot of people cringe – included myself. Many people and most politicians think of bureaucrats as lazy government employees on the public dole with too many benefits. We were often the “waste” in government that had to be cut.
I spent my whole career trying to change that image.
I worked hard and believed that somehow I could change the world for the betterment of mankind. I believe everyone in public service wants to do this but somehow worker behavior isn’t always perceived that way.
One can group government employees into two groups: “Home Rule” public servants and “Dillon’s Rule”bureaucrats.
Do you remember “Home Rule” and “Dillon’s Rule” from high school civics? It refers to how much leeway state governments give to localities. Virginia has long been known as a strict “Dillon’s Rule” state, which means localities are only allowed to do what is expressly stated in the law. Additionally, if nothing is stated in the statutes about what the locality intends to do, it cannot do that either without seeking permission.
“Home Rule” is just the opposite. If the statutes don’t say anything about what it is the locality is trying to accomplish then they are free to do it.
Although public servants are not subject to “Dillon’s Rule” and “home rule” law like localities are, they are often faced with situations where there are no clear guidelines on how to proceed. The public servant has to choose which course of action to take. “Home Rule” public servants will assume they can proceed. The “Dillon’s Rule” bureaucrat will assume they cannot proceed and stop. How many times have you heard, “Well, the book doesn’t say anything about that so I guess we can’t do it”?
I ran into this often while carrying out my duties as a public servant. One of the “Best Management Practices” (BMP’s) we pursued was “stream fencing” to help farmers fence their livestock out of their streams to improve water quality and livestock health.
In my office, I was very fortunate because we had a “Home Rule” Team. We used creativity to mix and match the various programs to make the programs work for the farmer. That’s how we managed to fence livestock out of hundreds of miles of stream banks; if the guidance documents didn’t say anything about what we were trying to do we assumed we could…and we did.
Don’t get me wrong, guidance is good and we need it but if there is no or limited guidance then use your best judgment in tandem with your technical expertise – and go forward.
The “Dillon Rule” bureaucrat may be denying opportunity to potential clients simply because there is no guidance. In contrast, The “Home Rule” public servant says, “I’m knocking on that door of opportunity.”
Our mission in soil and water conservation is crystal clear: get BMP’s installed on the land. What may not be so clear is how to get the BMP that works for the land to also work for the client. The “Home Rule” public servant will find a way, while the “Dillon Rule” bureaucrat abandons the way.
Which one are you?
Fantastic! I always felt our role at the local level was to take what came from DC or Richmond and make it work for the good of the environment and landowner.
Thanks for your comment Jim. You are one of my public servant heroes.
Thanks for the civics lesson.
I have always appreciated your “Home Rule” attitude, and I think a lot of the natural resource progress made in our locality is a result of your leadership in helping others accept a “Home Rule” attitude as well. I have worked with a lot of public servants in several states over the last decade and have found that those who are the most enthusiastic and who get more done tend to be “Home Rule” oriented.
I didn’t think of it as “Home Rule” or “Dillon’s Rule” when I would meet a public servant who went straight by the book and wasn’t willing to be creative. I felt then, as I still do, that that person just didn’t want to deal with the extra work it might take to be creative, so why bother. It wasn’t required, and it would only take more time.
I tip my hat to the “Home Rule” folks out there, and I am glad I live in an area where there are many of them helping citizens “get things done.”
Thanks Joe! You are right on!
Interesting topic Bobby and one I could write a few pages on. I have noticed throughout my career in 4 states and at NHQ for a couple years on a co-lateral assignment before I came to Virginia that we have 2 basic types of employees; those that use the manuals and policies to get conservation on the land and those that do the opposite to stay ‘safe’. Thank you for the refresher in 8th grade history class. I worked in one county in California that had a big sign before heading into the county stating they were a “Home Rule” county.
As we go into the future as a conservation agency, I feel it very important we get back to basics and the reason our agency was developed in the first place; to save soil and to improve water quality. I feel it was probably a mistake to change the name of our agency back in the mid-1990’s. The Soil Conservation Service had soil as the primary focus of our agency. We do not necessarily deal with natural resources such as oil, gas, coal, etc. We need to continue put our focus on soil and soil quality. Our current chief is trying to do that. I like our new strategic plan also that puts ‘getting conservation on the land’ as our primary focus.
Watching some of the news lately and seeing the huge dust storms in the west makes we wonder how effective we have really been in the last 75+ years.
I am neither a Home Rule or Dillon bureaucrat anymore than I am a Democrat or Republican these days. I use my knowledge, abilities and skills to promote conservation regardless of any cost share programs.
As agriculture becomes more profitable, I would like to see more emphasis on getting conservation on the ground less program driven and more conservation driven because it is the right thing to do and will help that farmer maintain profitability. Many of our conservation planning activities are geared more to meeting program benefit requirements instead of what is best for the land. As a result, we see modern farmers adapting their operations to meet program requirements instead of farming more holistically.
I have numerous producers coming in now telling me they do not need our program dollars. They want more information on improving drainage and pure technical assistance on how to improve their crop yields. This is how we functioned for years prior to becoming a program driven agency
I have hopes that our future necessary budget cuts will not reduce our conservation dollars too much, particularly for CRP and CREP and rotational grazing practices. I am afraid they will though as we try to tackle the deficit. Unfortunately, many of our cost share dollars have gone to a select few producers in the past and producers that have expanded their CAFOs. The majority of my newest EQIP participants have never had any funding for cost share in the past. Most are beginning farmers and graziers.
Our agency proved years ago that the technical assistance we can provide can be worth more than any program dollars. Unfortunately, we have land owners that may not be able to economically or will not install conservation practices without the extra incentive payments. How do we change that mindset? Focus on educating the children! My primary educational focus in the offices I have managed has always been to create a conservationist in early elementary school as that child will continue to be a conservationist through life, not because there are program dollars involved but because it is the right thing to do.
Jim, thanks for your comments. You are definitely a home ruler which has nothing to do with any political party.
This question could be posed to many, not just public servants. How many employees are paralyzed into inaction because a course of action is not stated in a policy or procedure and the fear of acting without these guidelines cannot be overcome? This is a product of micromanagement and failure of leadership. Sargent First Class Miller, my NCOIC, told me on my first day under his command, “If action needs to be taken, do something, if you are wrong we will both learn something, if you are right, great; the only wrong action is no action.”
Charlie, you are so right in that it doesn’t matter whether you are a public servant or a private employee; the principals are the same: are you a self starter with enthusiasm or a person waiting to be told what to do and how to do it. Thanks for your comment.
Well said Mr. Whitescarver, well said.
Lowrie, I know you have seen a lot of both…thanks for your time and comment.
I really enjoyed reading this blog post but to be honest with you it is hard to relate to at this point my life. Being a college student and only working part time jobs here and there I have not run into these types of dilemma’s yet. That being said, I still think that this information about Home rule and Dillon’s rule can apply in a school setting. I enjoyed reading this blog because I know it will be useful information for future endeavors.
Emily, thanks for taking the time to post a comment. I hope you can use the information in the future. It can apply to students and professors alike as well as employees of the private sector.
I think that one thing to remember is that the title is public servant, and this means that you follow the guidance of the law while serving the public. While this does not mean always doing for the landowner but the best interest of the public as well.
Yes Aaron, it is sometimes difficult for public servants to figure out who they work for; but in the final reckoning it is indeed the public.
This article really helped me define the difference between Home Rule and Dillon’s Rule. I had a brief understanding of the two concepts before but forgot their true importance. I look at politics and see a lot of Dillon’s Rule bureaucratic which I dislike. The people who are running this country need to act more and argue less. I myself appeal to the Home Rule belief where if no precedent is there act upon your best judgement. The only fault I see with this approach is if the person acting has bad judgement or a warped sense of the truth. I hope that more people think about these problems and come to conclusions about what can be done to improve the situation rather than just give up and say “well there is nothing we can do, it is out of our hands.”
Paul, thanks so much for your comment. It is spot on. I should have mentioned that the successful home ruler has to have good ethics.
Bobby, Great lesson for all. In my 35 years of public service I learned that it is better to tell the boss what you are going to do rather than ask permission. Give people resources they need to do the job and give them the right to sometimes make a mistake. Those people won’t let you down and much will be accomplished.
Don, you have always been one of my public servant heroes. Thanks so much for taking the time to read the post and to comment. You are right on!
I always thought it interesting that Virginia, formative home of the Declaration of Independence and the motto “Thus Always to Tyrants,” embraces such a centralized governing structure. In essence Dillon’s Rule is the opposite of the 10th Amendment, under which those powers not expressly reserved to the federal government belong to the states and to the people. Richmond’s “trickle down” monopoly of power is not only anti-democratic but stifles creative solutions to local problems, as Bobby relates. The problem with letting a central government get away with these concentrations of power is the impossibility of their ever relinquishing it; witness the constitutional power of Congress to declare war, ceded since 1941 to the executive.
Thanks Bill, good comment.
I have to say taking ISAT 424 this semester has been one of the most enjoyable classes I have ever taken. It is really special to be taught subject matter that has such an important real-world application that benefits society and to be taught by such a passionate and dedicated Professor. Thank you for sharing your passion and being an inspiration to us, the next generation of hopefully “home rule” public servants. Your outlook matches perfectly with the curriculum and vision of ISAT and I have to say I am inspired to help make a change!
Chris, thanks so much for your kind words. You will be the solution because of your kind and hard working spirit. It is a pleasure having you as a student.
After spending time hearing Jim Callison talk about how you have helped him with his farm it has given me a new look at natural resource management. Before I thought you just had to focus on the conservation side of things and that most governments had strict, unflexible guidelines you had to follow. However, this blogpost as well as my experience has made me realize that it is important to work with the farmer. Finding ways to improve the stream quality that will also benefit him will be a much more convincing argument for the employment of BMPs then trying to force him to be interested in water quality. I think a “Home Rule” bureaucrat is better in this situation because they can use the grey area to make projects work for the farmer.
Great blog post Professor Whitescarver. The “Home Rule” and “Dillons Rule” analogy really gets your point across about how government employees can go about their job. I enjoyed your point about the “Home Rule public servant” seeing himself as an opportunity for improvement.
This post does a great job at explaining how a government bureaucrat can either be a very helpful public servant or a burden on society. I agree that the general reaction to hearing that someone is a bureaucrat is typically negative. The idea of a Dillon’s Rule bureaucrat kind of reminds me of the precautionary principle, because both can slow progress. The precautionary principle slows progress due to the uncertainty of what the research or development might cause. Dillon’s Rule also slows progress because of uncertainty relating to the guidelines. In the end I think that both of these phenomena’s will only slow progress and therefore bureaucrats should follow more of a Home Rule.
Conor, great thought. The Dillon’s Rule bureaucrat uses the precautionary principal! That’s why they can never get anything done. Way to put the two together.
Home rule all the way! Problems such as these are too multifaceted for one size fits all solutions and It’s not hard to see how you have been able to accomplish so much with such a positive outlook and attitude. I really enjoy how you bring more of a social side to many technical issues!
I found this post really intriguing, even though I am not a bureaucrat! I constantly see situations where professors or administrators at JMU follow the “Dillon’s Rule” theory and assume that they should not act on a certain thing because guidelines do not say whether or not they should. I’ve also been shocked to hear some of your stories in class and at farms where government programs refuse to help farmers do certain things because they are not expressly permitted in the program. Like you said, I think guidance is a good thing, but in a broad sense. I like to see rules that give a goal to achieve, but don’t limit exactly how you can get there. This allows people to use their creativity and accomplish more. In my future jobs, I hope to apply the “Home’s Rule” theory and find ways to get things done, even if the books don’t necessarily say whether or not you can do it.
Great observation Lani! Yes there are Dillon’s Rule employees of many kinds, not just government employees.
I spent some of my Land Use Planning class last semester talking about Home Rule vs. Dillon’s Rule and how unfortunate it is that Virginia takes on the Dillon persona. It is a recipe for laziness to only act when you are told specifically that you can. Dillon’s Rule makes it so easy to just give up on a project as soon as it becomes clear that the legislature isn’t already in place. How can people expect to make changes for the better if Dillon’s Rule bureaucrats won’t do anything unless it’s already been done? Home Rule is the approach we all need to take if we wish to improve our land and country.
I find it interesting that Virginia has long been known as a strict “Dillon’s Rule” state. You said that when nothing is stated in the statutes about what the locality intends to do, it cannot do that either without seeking permission….who do they get permission from? the state? I would say that I am much more of a “home rule” type of person, because I think that if you only follow what the book says, you are giving up opportunities to find better, more creative ways to go about finding solutions to the problem at hand. Do you think there is any correlation between a state being more “home rule” or “dillon’s rule” and whether they are more democrat or republican?
Mandy, yes, they have to seek permission from the Attorney General’s office of some other state level office. I don’t think it has anything to do with political affiliation.
When I was a youngster, oh, let’s say younger than 45, my mother would tell me I needed to get one of those good government jobs. I’d tell her I didn’t want to be any part it of it…but now I are one! The idea of us being either a “Home Rule Public Servent,” or a “Dillion’s Rule Bureaucrat” is a novel notion to me! I’ll continue to ponder its implication and meaning!
Prior to joining the goverment legion 10 years ago, I did a little farming, and primarily made milk & honey money in a big private sector business. Comparing the two, there are a lot of things the same, a lot that are different. The biggest difference for me is leadership. A business seeks to hire those indivduals who can accomplish its goals. The government? I’m not so sure of the criteria.
So, to public servants I’d say, “BE a LEADER!” Understand the mission of the agency in which you work. Wrestle with its values. Be innovative in the means to the end, knowing when your too far outside the box, at the same time pushing out on the boundaries. I’d say the same thing to someone working in any other arena! There are no lack of good ideas, but execution is a bi_ _ h! Without “Dillion’s Rule” there’s a potential resource wasting opportunity around every corner. Without “Home Rule” the mission goes wanting.
Best I can do to work the theme back into the rant!
Maybe this says it simply–
A good leader get’s it, and knows when to follow the pace car and when to race!
Dan, thanks for your time and comment. You are right on!