Private sector is key to Washington’s success | Guest column

Many people are calling this an “off election year” and not thinking about politics or who is running for office. But don’t forget, all politics are local and 2011 is a year where hundreds of city and county council, school board, fire district and water/sewer district seats are on the ballot.

Many people are calling this an “off election year” and not thinking about politics or who is running for office. But don’t forget, all politics are local and 2011 is a year where hundreds of city and county council, school board, fire district and water/sewer district seats are on the ballot.

And with the budget challenges that local and state governments face, we need good people in local positions who understand how to budget for short-term challenges to maximize long-term opportunities. With a $5.1 billion state budget deficit, we cannot sit on the sidelines and expect someone else to fix the mess. As Washingtonians, we are all in this together, and perhaps it’s time for more people from the business community to run for office.

We live in a world economy where competition in the global marketplace is fierce. Washington is uniquely positioned in the world market, given our geographic location. And despite the current economic woes, success stories in our business community are many — from building world-class airplanes, inventing new technology, making a great cup of coffee, creating fine wines, growing the freshest produce and advancing medical science.

We have an amazing private work force that is the foundation of our state’s success. People from all over the world are being recruited to come and work here. When they arrive, they find a lifestyle and environment that is hard to compare to anywhere else in the world. But for people to be wooed to Washington, it takes a healthy and sustainable business community — a community that has confidence and an effective partnership with local and state government officials. Without that partnership, Washington will fall behind on being admired by the world as a great place to live and work.

We are fortunate to live in a democracy where people have the privilege of voting and selecting their leaders. We are also fortunate that almost anyone can bring their skills and expertise to public office. One of the best ways to quickly improve the business climate in our state is to encourage local business leaders with experience and knowledge from the private sector to run for public office.

We tend to easily forget that hometown private sector employees and managers oftentimes have the exact experience, skill-set and objectivity to be effective and balanced elected officials, especially at the local level. Consider this list of six reasons:

1. Fair and objective: Business owners and employees cannot bow to only the most powerful, but instead must do what is right for their customers — in this case the voters.

2. Private sector employees must carefully balance short- and long-term needs to ensure survival, and are held to account every single day by the free enterprise market — the choices of their customers.

3. They must know where they stack up. Private sector employees must be keenly aware of their competitive position, and always adapt to change. These are necessary skills for municipal leadership.

4. They are not swayed by emotions or the loudest voice in the room, but instead operate on sound data, objective measurements and performance-driven results.

5. They understand budget sustainability and know a successful organization must live within its means. Failure to do so results in difficult expense reductions and a reduction in trust by those whom they serve.

6. Business owners and employees understand that investments must have a strong potential for Return on Investment, and are held accountable for their decisions.

Remember, a majority of businesses in most communities are those who have been fixtures of community vitality, local employment and hometown values for years — real people, working hard to support their families and their community. Who better to lead our local governments than these community members?

While the numbers of state lawmakers who have some sort of business background is improving, we still need more, and we need more at the local level. Other interest groups have professional recruitment and training programs to get people to run for public office and then when elected, champion their ideas. More hometown business managers and employees need to step forward to serve and to lead. We are excited to see this happening locally as well as across our state. But more is needed.

Years ago, companies would advocate for employees to serve in public office. So much of a company’s bottom line, and a community’s prosperity and quality of life, are contingent upon government regulation, compliance and taxes that encouraging employees to run for office should be a wise investment for any company in any community. With the state’s fiduciary priority of funding education, now is the time for the business community to increase its presence in Olympia. Our children’s education is the lifeline to Washington’s future work force, and a balanced approach that prioritizes education is of the utmost importance.

From city and county council to school board and water/sewer and fire district seats, the 2011 election year provides many opportunities to serve in local office. And 2012 will offer the opportunity to serve in the state Legislature, where women and men, Democrat and Republican, can help shape public policy that will improve the businesses in our great state for future generations.

Take some time to consider sharing your hard-earned leadership, management, budgeting and performance-based expertise and talents. Your community and our great state needs you!

This column was co-authored by Tom Pierson is CEO of the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce, and Erin McCallum, president of Enterprise Washington and the Business Institute of Washington.