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Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: Information is King

By Kevin O'Toole, January 22 2018 12:00 am

“As a general rule, the most successful person in life is the one with the best information” – Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli   

Politics is not a business that trades in any specific product, but rather in the use of cutting edge information to accomplish public objectives. The former prime minister couldn’t have been more correct in how much value he placed on information.

Throughout my career in politics, this has been the single most important principle and my unrelenting application of it has served me well – Information is King.  

Allow me to explain:  

It is human nature to want to appear in the know, to have the latest/juiciest piece of intel putting you “in the circle” of knowledge.   Politicians suffer from this desire perhaps more than the average bear. Dealing in all manner of information and creating certain perceptions would seem, after all, central to the trade.  Most politicians like to talk.  A lot.  This is really not a problem EXCEPT when they do so without all the facts – which happens all too frequently.  Politicians do a disservice to themselves and the public they serve when they rush to make pronouncements on some issue without regard to those pesky facts they don’t know – all in the quest to appear up to speed on the issue when they are not.  

The cure, which is rarely utilized, is to gather all the facts remembering the power of this simple truism – Information is King. I have long believed that if you want to advance a cause or purpose, you better know everything about it, including what your opponent or adversary is thinking.

The only way to know what’s going on out there is to “shut up and listen.”  

As a staff member, I used to take great pride in representing my boss at a meeting, being his surrogate, and then reporting back. My briefings were usually so detailed that it allowed my boss to feel as if he was in the room – this type of attention to detail can prove valuable down the road. Equally, if not more, important as being the surrogate was being the staffer who blended into the wallpaper in the back of the room to just observe, listen and make mental notes. A lot of information can be gathered in this way.

To all the staffers reading this column (especially the members of the new administration), if you want to prove yourselves invaluable to your boss, collect and gather as much information as you can and pass it along. The broader and more diverse your network, the more information you will be able to obtain and the more value you will have. Develop and cultivate a relationship with a county committee person in a small town, for example. You never know what they might know about their mayor that may prove important to your Assembly Member or Senator, or Freeholder or County Chairman. You never know how the smallest piece of information may fit into a larger jigsaw puzzle.   

I always had a sensational staff who were empowered to act on my behalf and who were tasked with intelligence gathering as if their jobs depended on it – and sometimes it did. Their network of fellow chiefs (on both sides of the aisle), staffers from all levels of government, and a network of politicos throughout the state always kept us in the loop.   

As a legislator, I always made it a practice to call my colleagues, in both parties and both houses, just to check in. You’d be surprised just how little information, absent regular communication, you would otherwise hear from other parts of the state.   

Here are some tips:  

  • Talk to members of both caucuses on a frequent basis, not just when you need a favor or a vote
  • Treat staff well and spend time asking them what is happening – they are the smart ones and are always looking to impress  
  • Start and finish your day getting a briefing from staff about what is happening 
  • Read several different newspapers – from different parts of the State and local news sites, as well as national and international news  
  • On a daily basis review news websites that span and cross the span of all politics  

The importance of information cannot be overstated, especially for a politician.  I am aware that for some non-politicos, as exemplified by the movie character Gordon Gekko, the value of information is viewed solely through the lens of monetary profit.  These people see information primarily as a means to open a golden pathway to financial reward (and it can be used for that purpose).  I have looked at it in a different light throughout my political career.  For me, being in possession of the most accurate, up to date, relevant and complete information – more than any of your colleagues and counterparts – is the master key to the political kingdom.  Obtaining and properly utilizing information is the single most important component of achieving political and legislative success.

“The most valuable commodity I know of is information” – Gordon Gekko

This column originally appeared on InsiderNJ.


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