Leading by Listening: Barbara Roberts' Conversation With Oregon

The best leaders know how to listen. But few elected officials have had as much experience as Oregon's former governor at using conversation as a tool for change.

The same day Oregonians elected Democrat Barbara Roberts governor, they passed a citizens' initiative restricting local property tax rates. Ballot Measure 5 also required the state to replace all revenue lost by schools and local governments because of the new rate cap. The result? A projected $2.6 billion cost to state government over five years. "It was the shortest honeymoon in history," Roberts says of her election night. "I didn't even get a kiss."

But Roberts was undaunted, determined to manage the first round of cuts from the state's $7 billion general fund budget and tackle tax reform. The governor chose collaboration as her core strategy to reengage citizens and build consensus on the tough choices the state faced in 1991. And the key to collaboration was communication.

A "Conversation" is Born

Roberts scored some first-year wins, including legislative concurrence on key elements of her first-year agenda and an initial round of Measure 5-driven budget cuts. She worked with communities, businesses-and her former opponent for governor-to refine and win legislative endorsement of the bottom-up "Oregon Benchmarks" strategic planning and management process, begun by her Democratic predecessor.

When a second payment was due on the voter-driven tax caps, editorial and political pressures built for Roberts to adopt a "quick-fix solution" to the growing gap between revenues and spending: a tax reform ballot measure that she believed would fail.

Says Roberts, "I could have called it the 'Roberts Reform Package.' It would have sounded like leadership, smelled like leadership, looked like leadership. Editorials across my state would have heralded my actions. And when it was rejected by the voters, they would have said, 'nice try.' But we wouldn't have been one step closer to a solution."

Roberts knew that undertaking such a complex issue-one that must eventually be resolved at the ballot box-required early and broadly representative participation by Oregonians.

Thus was born Roberts' "Conversation with Oregon," a high-tech grassroots dialogue between the governor and thousands of Oregonians about the future of the state.

Randomly selected registered voters were invited to participate in interactive televised discussions with the governor. Roberts personally led 32 two-hour sessions broadcast through the state's telecommunications network, Ed-Net. Each broadcast connected the governor to about 30 sites around the state. More than 10,000 citizens eventually traveled to local studios to "meet" the governor on live video and engage in a dialogue through an audio system that enabled speakers to be heard by participants at the other sites.

"Sometimes the rooms are packed. Sometimes only the moderator shows up," reported Portland's Willamette Week in December 1991. "But no matter how small her audience, Roberts never fails to turn on the charisma. Picture a combination of Judy Garland, Thomas Jefferson and Billy Graham."

The sessions included the governor's illustrated presentation on state revenues and expenditures-and the impact of Measure 5. Citizens exchanged views on how well state government was spending their money, the level of state services they wanted, and how the state should pay for those services. Groups then shared their opinions with the governor and other participants.

The Conversation only revved up the critics' rhetoric: "Some states have a governor," wrote an editor at Oregon's largest daily newspaper. "Oregon has a weatherperson."

But most participants found the Conversation worthwhile. A University of Oregon survey found that participants not only learned more about state finances, but felt the Conversation "offered hope for citizen influence in the policy-making process."

Roberts held another round of face-to-face meetings with voters, then carefully crafted what she termed a "balanced" tax reform package. The governor hoped that her "citizen-designed" tax package - with a boost from her state restructuring and downsizing initiatives-would meet with voter approval. She called a special legislative session to place the measure on the ballot.

The tax package passed the Democrat-controlled Senate, but lost in the Republican-controlled House by two votes. It never reached the voters.

"We did a great job of bringing everybody to the table, we did a great job of designing a reform program," Roberts said in an interview at the end of her term. "We did a wonderful job of bringing people aboard-business, churches, and community leaders. But I failed to do as effective a job as I could have with the legislature."

A Female Style?

Roberts suggests that her determinedly collaborative leadership style is at least in part rooted in gender differences. "The male style is more confrontive, more combative, more likely to involve some muscle flexing," she says. "The female style is more one of consensus building. . . . [Women leaders] will often find more than one path to the same destination, bringing more supporters to an end solution."

Leading by listening is risky. The University of Oregon survey also found that the special legislative session "soured persistent voters' opinion about the worth of the Conversation," although "about half continued to view it with hope."

Roberts' personal approval ratings never fully recovered from the hit she took when she joined the long line of Oregon leaders who had failed to overhaul the state's tax system.

Later Roberts successfully deployed the interactive television approach on another issue-personally engaging hundreds of high school students in frank discussions about preventing teen pregnancy. After a second round of statewide televised conversations with parents, health care professionals, community and church leaders, and educators, participants crafted Oregon's comprehensive teen pregnancy program.

Roberts has no regrets. "Restoring citizens' faith in government," she says, "is about honest, effective collaborative, results-oriented government. It is also about honest, effective, collaborative, results-oriented communication with the citizens we serve."

--Gail Johnson is an assistant professor at Old Dominion University's College of Business and Public Administration in Virginia, and author of Recruiting, Retaining, and Motivating the Federal Service (Greenwood, 1991). Neal Johnson is executive editor of The Public Innovator, a news bulletin for the National Academy of Public Administration's Alliance for Redesigning Government. They are studying the experiences of women leaders in government.

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