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3 cool tricks about constituency service (Daniel O’Donnell and Nick O’Neill edition)

I’m a political scientist and have studied electoral politics and incumbency, but I’d not thought seriously about constituency service until a couple years ago, when I contacted some of our local city and state representatives about a nearby traffic intersection that seemed unsafe. I didn’t want any kids to get run over by drivers who could easily have been misled by the street design into taking the curve too fast.

It took awhile, but after a few years, the intersection got fixed, thanks to assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell and his chief of staff Nick O’Neill.

This is pretty basic constituency service and you can bet that I’ll vote for O’Donnell for pretty much anything at this point, at least absent any relevant new information.

But this point of post is not to endorse my state rep. Rather, I wanted to share the new perspective I’ve gained regarding constituency service.

Before now, I’ve thought of constituency service as close to irrelevant to political performance. I mean, sure, it’s great if you can rescue some cat stuck up a tree or help untangle somebody’s paperwork, but the real job of a legislator is to help pass good laws, to stop bad laws from passing, and to exercise oversight on the executive and the judiciary.

But after this O’Donnell thing I have a different view. For one thing, I contacted several officeholders, and he was the only one to act. This action signals to me that he thinks that the safety of kids crossing the street is more important than the hassle of getting the Department of Transportation to make a change. This is actually a big deal, not just in itself but in having a local politician who’s not afraid of the DOT.

More generally, one can view constituency service on issue X as a sign that the politician in question thinks issue X is worth going to some trouble for. Those other politicians who didn’t respond to the request regarding the dangerous street (not even to give a reasoned response, perhaps convincing me that the intersection was actually safe, contrary to appearances)? I’m not so thrilled with their priorities.

I’m not saying that that constituency service is a perfect signal; of course it’s just one piece of information. My point is that constituency service conveys more information than I’d realized: it’s not just about the legislator or someone in his office being energetic or a nice guy; it also tells us something about his priorities. In this case, I don’t see Daniel O’Donnell’s help on this as a way for him to get a vote or even as a way for him to quiet a squeaky wheel. Rather, I see it as him taking an opportunity to make the city a little bit of a better place, using my letter as a motivation to do something he would’ve wanted to do anyway. We work on systemic problems, and we also fix things one at a time when we can.

20 Comments

  1. Mike says:

    Or maybe he just knew you were a renowned political scientist with a popular blog! Politicians are very smart in choosing which nice thing to do.

  2. Z says:

    I’ve always cynically viewed constituency service mainly as a cheap path to voter loyalty, often a crutch for crooked politicians or politicians who aren’t actually ideologically aligned with their voters when it comes to legislation. Of course it can also clearly sometimes be the rational thing for a virtuous and purely motivated politician to do.

    • Phil says:

      It’s not so cheap! Presumably Andrew wasn’t the only one to complain about the intersection, but the number might have been in the single digits or low double digits. Many many more people will have thought the intersection was dangerous, but most people would not have complained to their elected politicians. And although Andrew credits one specific assemblyperson for acting, you can bet that 99.999% of people who use that intersection have no idea that that happened and will give that person no credit at all. The point being that whatever effort this guy put into getting the intersection fixed, it couldn’t have directly won him more than a few votes…maybe not even that (perhaps Andrew would have voted for him anyway in the next election).

      Of course, how much time and effort did it take? If someone can win a few votes per hour by doing this sort of thing, hour after hour, day after day, for an entire term, that can add up to a lot of votes in the end. I’m not discounting your point completely. But I would also suggest that if someone spends hour after hour, day after day, trying to make things better for their constituents, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?

      • Z says:

        Yes, I completely agree with you. But there’s also the familiar trope of the crooked long term incumbent politician who’s impossible to get rid of because so many people are grateful to him for making small but concrete changes that they cared about. See Clay Davis in The Wire for a good fictional example of a politician who would absolutely respond to Andrew’s traffic request but is still an overall negative influence. I think the idea is that crooked politicians tend to lean heavily on constituency service because it can usually be achieved through influence peddling (their forte) and without running afoul of powerful special interest groups (their benefactors). Doesn’t mean good politicians shouldn’t also do constituency service!

  3. Pointeroutguy says:

    I don’t know what’s more depressing about your post. The fact that it took *years* to get an intersection fixed, or the fact that you had to appeal to legislator (and not a professional civil servant) to get it done.

  4. Bob says:

    According to Wikipedia, Members of Congress are allowed 14 staffers. Most of these end up doing constituent services—usually with a majority of the staff in the district office(s). Members of Congress are the closest thing that we have to a federal ombudsman.

    I am not aware of any formal review mechanisms of the quality of a member’s constituent services. But, I am under the impression that the local politically-active people in the community typically have an understanding of how well a member is doing on that attribute of their job.

    Bob

  5. Roy says:

    I grew up in a big city, and I am old enough that the old big city political machines were still somewhat intact during my teens. I did some work with our ward leader while in high school, and talked to some of the people who had been involved for many years. “Constituent services” were the bread and butter of the political machines. People were often derided for supporting the corrupt machines, but when you are not well off and the machines provide you some basic services and pull you get no where else, you can see why people might have supported them. Read some of the accounts of Tammany Hall – corrupt yes, but they knew how to organize neighborhoods. The concerned of many of the people I interacted with during that time were quite different than the headline concerns in the paper (at that time civil rights and the Vietnam war).

  6. Emmanuel Charpentier says:

    May I risk a somewhat dissenting opinion ?

    Fixing an intersection is the responsibility of a *local* **administration**. The fact that a political intervention was necessary is already troubling : the issue should have been reported by routine administrative routes, and the allocation of resources to fix the problem should have been a routine decision of the relevant local body (the city council, I think ? But I’m not a US citizen…).

    More troubling is that fact that no local-level politician was willing and able to fix the problem. This means either that a) none of them went looking into the issue, b) judged it important enough to act, or c) (worse) were unable to act.

    Cases a) and b) point to lack of judgement of the involved persons. Case c) is worse because it points to a dysfunctional political system : if some local-level politician reports such a problem to the political entity (the city council, I presume) he/she is member of, he/she should be able to report to the constituency that the problem was examined and either fixed or not judged worthy of action ; on the other hand, if he/she has been unable to report the problem, the said political entity is unable to fulfill its mission. Which is a serious problem.

    But the fact that a state-level politician *was* able to fix the problem is even worse : it means that the local administration complied (directly or indirectly) to suggestions of someone it does not has to answer to. It implies that to get something done at the local level, one has to speak to a *different* person that the one officially in charge. This in turn implies that a) the local political personnel does not discharge its official responsibilities and b) that the state-level politician does.

    But this is NOT his/her job !

    The fact that the representative *was* receptive to a local problem indeed speaks well of him/her on a personal level. But the fact that he/she *was* able to act points to a very dysfunctional political system, where the respective responsibilities of the different actors and bodies involved are in effect masked by what may be ultimately the result of “horsetrading”, i. e. exchanges of services.

    This is not democracy ; this is mafia.

    The fact that the representative choose to play this game in favor of a sensible decision indeed speaks well for him/her, but leaves us in the dark about its motives (but that’s not really important : this is something to discuss between him/her and his/hers conscience, if any), and also leaves us in the dark about the next decision he/she will have to take (and *this* is a very serious problem : on what basis should we choose our representatives, if they are unpredictable ?).

    ( Furthermore, this dysfunction at the local-level management makes us wonder about the effective function of the law-making process (which *is* the *real* job of our representative !) : what role does horsetrading play in the effective political process ? And what room does this leaves to the representation of the constituency’s will ? But this is a much larger question).

    In short, I tend to think that this story highlights the way our political hell is paved with our representation’s good intentions. Not a nice view…

    • Keith O'Rourke says:

      Thanks, very thoughtful perspective.

    • I agree with this response to an extent. However I will note that in general there’s not enough funding to handle all the “everyday” crap that needs to get done: potholes, fix an intersection, keep the library roof from leaking, change from buying paper books to buying e-books for the library, improve the site security of the local elementary school, upgrade the power lines in an area where they frequently fail, whatever.

      Given the typical severe shortage of funds, they tend to get allocated to whoever complains the loudest and with the most “grunt” behind them (ie. help from people with power like the state assembly member). So most likely this reflects the fact that priorities are highly changeable and there are lots of issues, not all of which can be addressed. Because Andrew got someone involved in his local issue with a particular intersection, some other intersection, or some other park or sewer system or whatever *didn’t* get fixed. That *might* be ok, but really we have a serious problem politically with *lack of honest discussion of values and priorities* and so “horse trading” thrives.

      • Andrew says:

        Daniel:

        I disagree with your statement, “Because Andrew got someone involved in his local issue with a particular intersection, some other intersection, or some other park or sewer system or whatever *didn’t* get fixed.” I suspect it’s the opposite, that fixing one intersection in this way, and seeing it work, makes it more likely that others will be fixed in similar ways. It’s my impression that the biggest cost here is not in adding some pavement or whatever, but in fighting against the default view that the purpose of streets is to maximize traffic speed.

    • Phil says:

      -1

      There are some kernels of truth here, but mostly I think this is ludicrously overstated, lacks reasonable perspective, and is based on a comparison to a utopia in which people don’t act like people.

      • Emmanuel Charpentier says:

        Dear Phil :

        > There are some kernels of truth here, but mostly I think this is ludicrously overstated, lacks reasonable perspective,

        What is “reasonable” ? See below…

        > and is based on a comparison to a utopia

        Any democracy is, by *definition*, an utopia : it’s an attempt to create conditions where people willingly accept to collaborate for some “common cause”, even at the expense of their own *immediate* interest. This process is highly unnatural, requires some ability to think oneself in an “unnatural” future condition and some willingness to choose an harder present in order to reach a possible better future.

        Therefore…

        > in which people don’t act like people.

        … I’d rather say “in which people act like *informed*, intelligent* and fforward-looking* people.” Not quite the same thing.

        I think that you are more pessimistic than I am about the possibility of teaching people how to “look forward”. I’m not really optimistic, BTW, but I think that we are in seme sort of “Pascal’s wager” situation : if we are unable to convince people to look forward, the resultant of peoples’ individual greed for immediate benefit will kill us.

        Literally.

        So my best bet is to (quite “unnaturaly”) bet on the possibility of inciting people to look forward, which entails the ability to understand that *they* might be the losers in the endless, limitless competition our dominant political thinking aim to reduce out social life.

        Possibly more about that in an answer to Andrew.

    • Andrew says:

      Emmanuel:

      Let me put it another way. Officeholders are always doing constituency service of some form or another. In this case, my assemblymember had (at least) two choices:
      (a) Constituency service to me, and others like me, by intervening to make the traffic intersection safer and maybe save some kid’s life;
      (b) Constituency service to people who like to drive fast, by intervening to make the traffic intersection more convenient for people who wanted to zoom along Riverside Drive at 45 mph.

      There’s no “neutral” here; the Department of Transportation ultimately does what it does based on what the elected politicians tell it to do. And I think that’s fine, much preferable to the option of trying to maximize traffic speed, which sometimes seems like the goal of some city planners.

      To reframe what you wrote: having the Department of Transportation follow the political process and be responsive to elected officials is not mafia; it’s democracy.

      I appreciate that my assemblymember chose option (a) above, and I do think it says something about his priorities. Unlike the other politicians who did not respond to my request at all, perhaps because they feel that increasing traffic speed is a higher priority than safe streets.

      And, yes, that’s just my opinion, and I’m just one voter. My point is not that everyone should agree with me on this one; my point in the above post is that O’Donnell’s constituency service is not just a trick; it’s a potentially costly signal of his priorities.

  7. Wonks Anoymous says:

    I’ve heard that part of the reason former Toronto mayor Rob Ford had popular support (despite his many manifest deficiencies) was constituent service.

    • Phil says:

      Huh, I assumed it was because he provides so much entertainment value. It took several years for us to find another politician who has that train wreck quality that makes it so fun to look at the news every day.

      • jrkrideau says:

        I have heard that he did good constituency service. Look at the football team (well before he was banned). He actually did seem to work for people.

        Absent irrationality, mood swings, drugs and alcohol, and a slight ethics challenge (road paving; one cannot see Rob looting city hall), and possible spousal abuse he was not that bad.

        He was a lot of fun for those of us who do not live in Toronto.

        Unfortunately we now have to deal with Doug.

  8. Migd says:

    I just finished Richard Fenno’s “home style” in which he makes a similar point – he follows eighteen congressional reps around for several years to find that constituency service can actually be much more important in maintaining the base than roll call voting. He finds that a lot of people look for reps they trust to make the right decision for them (rather than looking at nra ratings or something like that.) Service is a way of getting trust, and trust gives reps leeway to make more difficult votes.

    The book is from the seventies, so I don’t know if it holds today. But what does hold is that votes are easy to measure and services are hard, so i think a lot of political scientists overlook these sorts of softer questions. That said, it’s still the case that most voters like their own reps much better than they like congress overall, so maybe the trust built by constituency services explains the discrepancy.

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