What Makes a Successful Governor?

By: - November 30, 2005 12:00 am

Two new governors were elected in Virginia and New Jersey, and each is now meeting with his transition team to plot how to turn campaign promises into action. Traditionally, these plans involve new legislative initiatives and major budget changes that must be adopted by state legislatures, with the ultimate measure of success judged by the ability of the new governors to get his or her initiatives enacted. The press often focuses on these initiatives because they highlight the daily conflict between the executive and the legislative branches and allow the media to “keep score” on wins and loses. The situation is essentially a political combat sport.   

In reflecting on their terms in office, most former governors agree that too much time, effort and political capital were spent on this combat sport of new initiatives and indicate that they wish they had spent more time being effective managers of state government and visionary leaders of their states.


As an effective manager, the governor’s focus would be on increasing the efficiency of state government. At first glance, there is not much political appreciation for enhancing the efficiency of state government since it is very hard, slow work whose rewards are not immediately realized. However, a governor as an effective manager can have a significant impact on the public’s faith and trust in both government and democracy — critical in alleviating today’s increasingly cynical and partisan environment.


This charge can be accomplished by hiring strong managers for cabinet positions, training them well and holding them accountable. It also involves effective evaluation and implementation of new technology. Given that states lag behind the private sector in implementing technology, there are enormous opportunities for state government to increase efficiency, with the governor setting the tone to stimulate innovation and creativity. All of these efforts will have a lasting impact not only on state government, but also on public support for government. Most of it can be realized without the help of the legislature.


As a visionary leader, a governor would provide an outlook for the future as well as influence both the values and expectations of citizens. It is critical for a governor to define future challenges and provide a pathway for citizens to face them even when they require short-run sacrifices. For example, one of the most pressing challenges today involves the changes in the international marketplace, marked by both the job loss and wage reductions in the manufacturing sector, particularly the automobile industry. If this problem is not addressed, citizens will witness major reductions in their real income over the next decade. One way to alleviate this particular challenge is to provide citizens with continuous learning opportunities for enhancing both their skill and education levels.


It is critical for a governor not only to define the challenge, but to specify how state government will provide the specific opportunities, which in this example are education and training opportunities, to meet the challenge. The key component, however, is for the governor to provide an optimistic message that will increase the value of education for all citizens. The result is that citizens will take the initiative to upgrade their own skill levels and will develop a higher expectation of the importance of education.  Over time, the culture will change, providing a lasting benefit to the individual, the community and the state in terms of higher revenues.


A governor as an effective manager and visionary leader will have long-run positive impacts on the citizens of his or her state in terms of their economic well-being, faith in government and democracy and long-run values and expectations. Governors who focus only on new legislative initiatives, even if enacted in the short-run, will often see them repealed or changed by a subsequent governor and legislature.


New legislative initiatives are obviously still necessary, but should not be overrated in an overall governing blueprint. They should be part of a broader vision that includes the goal of a more efficient state government and a longer run vision for the future. It is generally the vision that changes values and expectations, eclipsing the impact of legislation over time.


Hopefully, the two new governors-elect will strike the right balance.


Raymond C. Scheppach, Ph.D., is the executive director of the National Governors Association. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Governors Association.

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