Bureaucrats is treated as a dirty word, but a good bureaucrat is worth his or her weight in gold. A well-intentioned bureaucrat will remove obstacles from the public instead of creating them. A bureaucrat with self control and poise will be ready when a crisis comes. A bureaucrat oriented to the public interest instead of to the administrative structure will not be in thrall to the phrase, “But we’ve always done it that way.”
Bureaucrats like Washoe Voter Registrar Dan Burk or Planetarium associate director Dan Ruby have become known for their administrative and communications skills. They’ve served both the public and the system and served both well.
A bit of gold is departing from the Washoe County School District. Communications director Steve Mulvenon stepped down on June 30.
For a quarter of a century Mulvenon has been the public face of Washoe schools. His patience, forbearance, intelligence and equanimity have been one of the assets of the county education system.
This is the official who reporters deal with most often on county school stories. The person who fills this job can make the lives of reporters easy or miserable, with a corresponding effect on news coverage of the school district. And the person who fills the job can make the lives of teachers easier or more difficult.
There were times when it could not have been easy. Parents get irate. Reporters become insufferable. Administrators have constant needs.
During the spate of 1990s school shootings, for example, Mulvenon was angered at the way reporters trying to “localize” stories like Jonesboro and Columbine told their stories with broad brushes that gave short shrift to the statistical safety of Washoe County schools. He considered ending his cooperation with a couple of media outlets that were particularly careless in failing to make distinctions. But he never did so, following his instinct that openness will eventually get the facts out. His instinct paid off on March 14, 2006, when there was such an incident at Pine Middle School. Mulvenon had built a reservoir of trust with administrators and reporters. Journalists knew that what he said that day—probably one of the most difficult days of his career—was bankable.
Unlike many public relations people, he did not see his job as controlling of parceling out information, but of making it available. He did not necessarily see himself as the expert, though he has serious education credentials. If he didn’t know the answer, he would make available someone who did. And he didn’t try to spin stories, only make sure that the district’s point of view was heard.
Because he took the term public servant seriously, because of his openness and composure, the Washoe County School District has usually gotten solid news coverage, the benefit of the doubt, and a lot of good will. Mulvenon’s job is being eliminated, but whatever mechanism is put in place to replace it, we hope that his successors, and other government spokespeople, will learn from his example.
And we wish him well.