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

March 12, 2018

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

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.

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