The Conduit Street Q&A is our opportunity to get closer to the policymakers and public leaders who affect Maryland and its counties. We’ll ask questions about the person, the policy, and the politics – and let their answers bring you valuable insights on the biggest issues of today and tomorrow.
This week, we catch up with Bryan Desloge, President of the National Association of Counties (NACo).
MACo: You’re about halfway through your term as NACo President. Could you talk about some of your takeaways about leadership so far? What are your impressions about NACo and your experiences at past MACo events?
Desloge: It’s kind of interesting that no matter our different title – supervisors, commissioners, police jurors, judges, freeholders and the other titles – we all are generally doing the same job. And with all the differences in all the states across the country, we’re pulling the same wagon, we’re doing the same job. We’re working to create healthy, vibrant, safe counties across the United States. We’re working to build a better future for our children and our children’s children.
Maryland is similar to Florida in that both states have a mix of rural and urban counties and everything in between. I usually say in a lot of my addresses to the state audiences, the reason the state association is effective and serves a good purpose, is the fact that the members are active and engaged. That’s one of the things I remember about MACo. Without people being engaged, serving on committees and participating we’re not going to be as effective or get accomplished what we need to, to better serve our citizens.
It is the same thing we see here at NACo. The states that put the most into it, get the most out of it. The states that have people serving on committees, the states that have people coming to conferences, the states that have people who participate are generally the states that receive the biggest returns.
There is no other convening organization at the national level for county government besides NACo. Let’s face it, without NACo, we would be 3,069 disparate county governments out there, fighting for whatever we needed to get done.
MACo: Do you have any memories or takeaways from your attendance at past MACo events?
Desloge: I have gone to Maryland twice – two winter conferences. Being a Florida guy, those conference were awfully cold! I remember going for a run on the golf course and thinking, “I’ve run in some cold air, but this is really cold.” But the reception I received couldn’t have been warmer.
My experience in Maryland has been that there is a lot of good camaraderie, and the staff are in sync with the members. And as I said before, MACo members show up and are engaged. MACo members understand that our voice is stronger when we’re united.
I’ve heard wonderful things about MACo’s summer conference, and I hope before I finish my time as a NACo officer, I’ll have the opportunity to participate in the summer conference.
MACo: What advice would you give a newly elected official?
Desloge: When I first got elected, I came in thinking I knew all the answers and that I was pretty smart. I quickly realized that the size, scope, breadth and depth of what we do as elected officials is way beyond any experience I brought to the table.
I had limited public sector experience, other than serving on some community boards, before I ran for office. I walked in the door with a lot of private sector experience, which everybody thinks translates to the public sector very easily. Not so much.
I quickly realized how much value my state association brought to the table in terms of education and policy advocacy. And helping me interact with my peers. The state association allowed me to connect with other commissioners for information and advice, which was invaluable as a newly elected commissioner.
Soon after that, I found that NACo served the exact same purpose on a higher plane, on the national level. I found that I didn’t understand the federal issues until I started attending some of the NACo conferences, and then I started to realize the impact the federal government has on counties across the United States. I realized how critical it is for us to have a seat at the table, and our ability to help manage, direct and inform the federal policy process.
My NACo initiative – Brilliant Ideas at Work – encourages us to share noteworthy county practices and innovations. This is another key benefit to all elected officials, but especially those just entering office. Though every county is unique, we share similar challenges and can learn from one another.
In the private sector, as I have said, when we figure out how to build a better mouse trap, we hide that. Because it’s our competitive advantage. In the public sector, we ought to be exchanging our best ideas more often. I think that NACo is the best conduit for sharing this kind of information.
MACo: So, you mentioned having some limited public sector exposure before taking office. What path did you take to get there? What drew you to public service?
Desloge: I spent a couple years as a ski bum, 10 years with IBM and 25 years building a business from scratch. And in the in between period, I probably served on more than 30 community boards.
I came from the private sector with Fortune 100 experience, and I had a medium-sized business, and I had the start up from scratch. From the private sector, I had done a little bit of everything.
The reason I decided to run for public office is that my community has been good to my family and me. I got to a point in my career, where I was too young to step off the treadmill, and I wanted to give back in a bigger way. After serving in nonprofit leadership roles, I felt that the city commission, county commission or school board seats were the next level of public service that I was looking for. I really feel strongly that serving in public office is one of the best ways to give back.
On a related note, we really need to spend time figuring out how to develop the next generation of leaders to serve and run for public office. We need to look at that long term or we are going to have a downturn in the quality and caliber of our elected officials.
MACo: How have your impressions of county government changed? What’s the biggest difference from looking at county government from the outside than from being on the inside?
Desloge: My impression prior to being elected was probably not very favorable. I thought that the private sector was where all the talent was.
Six months into my tenure as a county commissioner, I stood on the dais and made an announcement. I said, “I’m here to publicly apologize because I have completely changed my opinion.”
In my county, all the senior staff I worked with could run circles around many of the private sector people that I had previously worked with. Public sector staff do it out of a love for the job and the ability to make a difference in people’s lives. I think it is a fascinating and noble career path.
For the most part, I find that the people who run for public office are doing it out of a sense of altruism. And the people who work in the public sector often have that same sense of “I think I can make a difference.” And it is encouraging.
MACo: Beyond your experience in county government, what led you to seek national office?
Desloge: I got involved with the Florida Association of Counties and enjoyed the interaction and camaraderie. I really appreciated the advocacy, education and skill set it gave me as a commissioner. I became president of the Florida Association and I got more involved with NACo.
I served on the NACo Board, and I had a number of people approach me about running for second vice president. I was flattered and decided to take a run at it. Running for office among a group of elected leaders is a little different than asking for residents to vote for you. It was a fascinating experience, and one I wouldn’t give up.
I am having the time of my life because I believe in what NACo does, and the difference NACo makes at the national level and in states and counties across the country.
MACo: How did your passion for civility get started?
Desloge: One of my best friends could not be more different from me ideologically, and we used to have these big debates about policy issues and then would go have a beer or go for a run. I really think that kind of relationship is lost in most politics today.
At the local level, we don’t have the luxury of kicking issues down the road; we have to deliver. If I told my constituents, “Your garbage is not going to be picked up next Tuesday because I’m having a hard time coming to a budget reconciliation and can’t agree with the other party on the commission,” people wouldn’t tolerate it. Local government doesn’t work like that. We’ve got to figure out how to work together across party and ideological lines.
I really feel in my core, if we can have a discussion about the facts in a civil tone, we can always move the agenda forward. We are never going to agree on everything. And people make decisions based on the way they were raised and the experiences they have seen. That’s the lens they see the world through. As long as we are dealing with facts and sincerely want to achieve a common goal, then we can work together.
MACo: So, you helped build out an organization Village Square. Can you talk a little bit about county officials’ involvement in that?
Desloge: We started an organization right before I got elected called Village Square, which has grown through a couple different groups. It’s now in Leon (Tallahassee), Pinellas and Broward Counties, as well as counties in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Utah and California.
We’ve been around for about 10 years now, and there are a number of versions out there. It’s kind of like “No Labels,” but at the local level.
Village Square is a great conduit for communities around the country to have difficult, challenging conversations. It is a way to drive a community conversation, and it’s not run by government.
I encourage you to attend NACo’s Legislative Conference, where we’re hosting a workshop on civility and Village Square and how county officials can get involved. We’ll also talk about programs like Howard County’s Choose Civility program. This workshop will be an excellent opportunity for county officials to learn about promoting civil discourse in our home counties. We hope to start a conversation so people can say, “Wow! I could go back and do this in my community.”
MACo: With the new federal leadership coming into the White House, more than 80 former county officials now serving in the new Congress, what role do county officials have in our government, especially in a time of transition?
Desloge: Anytime there is a big change, there is big opportunity. We can choose to be at the table or be on the menu. And NACo is at the table. We have become a more relevant organization and have a tremendous ability – with our united membership – to inform policy decisions in Washington, D.C. We make sure our federal officials understand and consider the dynamic challenges and complexities – and too often, mounting costs – facing you as a county leader each and every day.
Let’s face it, there are very few things that the federal government is going to do at some level that doesn’t roll down and impact counties to some degree. Clearly, some more than others.
Within the health policy arena, for example, counties invest more than $83 billion annually for community health services, from supporting more than 900 hospitals and 1900 public health departments to providing costly healthcare in our jails to dealing with the national epidemic with opioid and heroin abuse. This is why NACo is actively engaged in pushing for real healthcare reform that improves the efficiency and outcomes of our counties and our residents, rather than simply impose a federal cost shift to our counties and local taxpayers.
I urge every county official to join NACo’s efforts. We need to be involved, especially during this time of transition in Washington. Whether it’s serving on a NACo policy committee, participating in our conferences and events or calling on members of Congress and the administration, we need more people at the table to shape and advance our policy platform.
MACo: The Maryland and Florida State Associations have been working together – we had your state Director Scott Shalley join our summer conference and discuss Zika mitigation. Could you discuss more about the role of state associations?
Desloge: State associations are great places to share best practices from the state to state perspective. The associations’ ability to get together and talk about programs that have worked or that have been beneficial are really important.
State associations are in a unique space. It’s important to have an organization that understands the unique challenges and issues facing counties in every state – and then for those states to be able to share with one another things that come up across the country, just like Zika or “dark store theory” with property tax assessments. It’s also really important for the state associations to partner with NACo, coming together and working on issues and developing joint programs to further the cause.
MACo: Anything else that you would like to share with the Maryland audience?
Desloge: I’d like to talk a bit more about my NACo initiative, the Counties Matter Challenge: 100 Brilliant Ideas at Work. We are working with county leaders and partners to share noteworthy practices that bolster our nation’s ability to thrive amid ever-changing physical, social and economic conditions. Though no two of America’s 3,069 counties are exactly alike, many face similar challenges and learn from one another’s experiences.
I encourage Maryland counties to submit their most innovative projects in conjunction with NACo’s Achievement Award application process. I purposely am trying to point this towards some of our more rural counties that generally don’t get the recognition for some of the creative things that they have done. We are going to collect the 100 best ideas and present them as a reference guide to all NACo members.
We will also be promoting this idea during National County Government Month this year in April. We will have a toolkit and other materials available to help counties tell their stories better. There are a lot of innovative and unique programs out there that we need to share with one another and with leaders in Washington, D.C.
Lastly, it’s an honor to serve. For the members who haven’t engaged, we have got a lot of committees and we would love to see more representation from Maryland. And I look forward to seeing people at the upcoming NACo Legislative Conference!
MACo: Thank you for your service and involvement in NACo as well as MACo. We hope to see you at our summer conference in August!