The First Step Toward the Change We Need
This is Civic Way’s commentary on the latest federal pandemic recovery debate. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US. Our earlier commentaries on last year’s federal stimulus proposals provide relevant supporting information.
- Civic engagement – Alienation has festered, government credibility has plunged and thoughtful voices have faded, but better civic education and new technologies could usher in a new era of civic activism
- Civic leadership – With ample support, we can help our emerging community activists to seize the torch of leadership, confront today’s challenges and invest in the future and restore public faith in government
- Governance – If we improve governance, and learn to cooperate and solve problems once again, we can restore our national democracy and bolster our global competitiveness
- Civic progress – If we set goals around shared values, forge sound plans and united behind a common agenda, we can overcome our debilitating political paralysis and reverse the inexorable signs of decay
- First steps – Civic goals should be lofty, but achieving them often begins with incremental changes and modest compromises
The last four years, culminating in the disgraceful—but providentially inept—Capitol Coup, have been taxing for virtually all Americans. When acrimony spawns the kind of rage and violence we saw on January 6th, it is time to take stock of what we have become, as a people and nation. It is time for hard questions and honest answers. And it is time to begin anew, to chart a course for a better future.
Job One is to hold our leaders and ourselves accountable (see prior commentaries on accountability). Despite what some politicians seem to argue, accountability is not about retribution, but rather illumination. It is about understanding what happened in the past to learn what we need to do differently in the future. We don’t need to argue about who was bad and who was good, but rather how we can be better.
Make America Great Again was more attitude than governing philosophy. Building Back Better has to be different. It cannot be another hollow slogan. It cannot be an easily merchandized or monetized brand. It cannot be a politically-inspired call to turn the clock back to some twisted notion of our past.
Real change is hard. It demands qualities that have too often eluded us in recent years—honesty, humility, respect, diligence, resolve and conciliation. With such qualities, we can rebuild the four foundational elements of an enlightened democratic society—civic engagement, civic leadership, good governance and civic progress.
Nourishing Informed Civic Engagement
Voter indifference is both symptom and cause of broken politics. Voter participation, a proxy indicator of civic engagement, is abysmal. While US voter turnout surpassed 60 percent of the voting-age population for the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections, this surge was likely generated by the former President’s divisive political rhetoric. Even so, the US voter turnout rate ranks 30th among the world’s 35 most developed nations.
The harsh reality is that US voter participation has been soft for a long time. Since 2000, US voter participation languished between 54 and 64 percent during presidential elections and 41 and 48 percent during midterm elections. In 2014, the mid-term turnout was the lowest in 72 years. Turnout has been even lower for other elections. Only 28.5 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2016 primaries and 14.5 percent in the 2012 primaries. Local turnout rates rarely exceed 15 percent, especially for down-ballot races.
Why are we so disengaged? At least four factors contribute to low civic engagement in the US:
- A dramatic decline in civic education in our public schools
- A limited grasp of the special relevance of government to our daily lives
- Rising public susceptibility to misinformation and, for some, a willful ignorance of facts
- The decline of traditional media outlets and their ability to hold government accountable
- The proliferation of biased, misleading and unaccountable cable and web-based media outlets
In this void, good ideas are neglected, and thoughtful voices muted by the din of shrill ideologies. Alienation and anger incite nascent waves of faux populism. As civic ignorance, indifference and conflict spread, the legitimacy of government and other civic institutions suffers. As we lose the ability to think for ourselves, we elect more politicians devoid of any governing philosophy. Our governments suffer and our democracy becomes increasingly fragile.
Is there any cause for hope? Perhaps. Technological advances are transforming the way we gather, manage and use data. More of us than ever before stay informed with mobile devices, stay connected with social media and use mobile devices to navigate our daily lives. Mobile data sources have accelerated the demand for algorithm-based services that match users with their desires or needs.
Technology offers a possible catalyst for civic engagement. We could demand better tools for navigating civic data. With better civic education, our appetite for objective, credible news could escalate. Our growing use of social media could accelerate civic networking. And new technologies could offer dynamic platforms for spurring civic collaboration (e.g., crowdsourcing and participatory governance). Such trends could be harbingers of a new era of political activism. Will we seize the opportunity?
Developing Transformational Local Leadership
The paradox could not be clearer. We ask the least of the governments we trust the most. In recent decades, our federal government and politics have increasingly dominated the civic arena. As the federal government’s reach has expanded, its legitimacy has fallen. In contrast, local governments, despite closer ties with citizens, have come to rely heavily on federal aid. In turn, crushing debt and political paralysis have limited the ability of federal government to invest in local communities.
This troubling paradox is exacerbated by many factors, especially the decline of local leadership. In some communities, civic leadership groups come and go with the best intentions, lacking the focus, will or capacity for sustainable success. Others secure just enough funding to hang on, but with little influence. The inevitable result is a dismal landscape where communities—and many constituencies—fall behind, where the nation’s metro regions fail to become the engines of prosperity we need.
It is easy to blame others for weak local leadership, but we are more cause than victim. We abrogate our responsibilities to politicians and sit by passively while they kick problems down the road. We too often emasculate our competitive capabilities with short-sighted policies that neglect much-needed investments in infrastructure, education and other vital assets. We exclaim our distrust for politicians while entrusting them with our future. We complain about government, but rarely insist on accountability. Instead of joining (or leading) the fight for improving our communities, we too often sit passively on the sidelines.
Today’s local leadership void is profound, but into this breach a new generation of civic leaders will leap. Young activists, frustrated by today’s political paralysis, instead of “waiting their turn,” will seize the torch of leadership in their respective communities. To fully realize the promise of new civic leadership, we need to pass our wisdom, not just the baton. We must seek out and embrace these emerging local leaders, and do what we can to prepare them for the challenges ahead.
What should we do? We should arm the next generation of civic leaders with the resources they will need. Provide them an easy-to-use suite of civic leadership tools. Augment such tools with a structured change management model, one that fosters local engagement and collaboration and connects local leaders with a broader national network. By developing local leaders, we can revitalize our communities and build a more enlightened, competitive nation.
Achieving Fair, Honest and Prudent Governance
At one time, America’s governance was one of its strongest assets. Most public leaders strove to preserve order, promote prosperity and serve the public interest. And even when our leaders occasionally failed us, our democratic institutions usually held them accountable. Since World War II, good government even became a valuable competitive asset in the increasingly fierce global economy.
Regrettably, our crazy quilt of federal, state and local governance—American federalism—has seen better days. At the federal level, our politics are toxic and our finances uncertain. At the state level, our bureaucracies are poorly-structured and legislatures too ideological. At the local level, we are hamstrung by federal debt, state interference and fragmented (and sometimes duplicative) local service delivery. At all levels, our long-standing commitment to compromise and the common good is fraying.
We may tell ourselves or pollsters that we want a just, competent and competitive nation, one that wisely invests in the future, but there is a growing chasm between the policies we say we want and the politicians we elect. We spend more time thinking about our appearance than we do our governments. We rely too much on a single source for our news. We skew facts to fit our biases. We refuse to hold our elected officials accountable. And still, we complain.
Why do our politics and governance seem so dysfunctional? There are many reasons. Some politicians are self-serving. Some candidates for public office make promises they cannot keep. Some public executives (e.g., governors, mayors and county executives) are ill-prepared, if not ill-suited, for the challenges of governance. Some elected officials are myopic or just unwilling to risk today’s vote for tomorrow’s gain. The mechanisms for holding government accountable are weak. And, even when bold, honest and far-sighted leaders arrive on the scene, they are often punished at the polls.
Still, winning and holding public office offers a unique opportunity. Governing, however, requires more than intelligence and charisma. It calls for preparation and discipline, and a well-conceived, efficient governance system, including tools for managing the transition, crafting an agenda, improving operations and measuring performance. A well-designed system can equip public executives for the challenges ahead and help them forge and carry out an agenda for meeting those challenges.
Fully-prepared public executives can improve governance, bolster civic trust and achieve long-lasting change. As candidates, they recognize that over-promising, while an alluring political strategy, is not a viable approach to governance. As elected officials, they can govern decisively, offering pragmatic solutions instead of empty slogans and usher in a new era of innovation, compromise and results.
Good governance begins with selecting good leaders, but we must do more. We must track the performance of those we elect (and those they appoint) and hold them accountable for fulfilling the promises they make. We must challenge our governments to be as efficient and effective as possible, to ensure that they deliver fair, equitable and cost-effective public services. We must continually ensure that the government we have is the government we need. Ultimately, good governance will restore the public trust in democracy.
Enduring Civic Progress
The US is no longer the world’s undisputed leader. Through sacrifice, cooperation and smart investments (e.g., Land Grant Colleges and Interstate Highways), the US built a society to be envied. However, only two decades into the 21st century, our can-do spirit has yielded to political acrimony, thereby betraying our legacy and threatening our future.
The signs of American mediocrity are pervasive. Our public infrastructure is crumbling. Many of our most vital sectors, such as educational and health care, suffer from high costs and mediocre outputs. According to a University of Washington study, for example, the US ranks 27th in the world in healthcare and education (down from 6th in 1990). Other nations are outpacing us, and our heirs could pay dearly for our neglect.
Our competitiveness has declined for many reasons. More states are controlled entirely by one political party than at any time in the last 60 years, and neither party is immune to ideological missteps. GOP-controlled states suppress voter turnout, cut taxes, erode employee rights and gut environmental controls, all the while deferring investments. Democrat-controlled states too often ignore the risks of fiscal deficits, governmental overreach and bureaucratic inertia. One-party politics invariably produces one-track thinking.
We must reassess what it means to be competitive. What does success look like? Defining progress more broadly and objectively will help free us from dogmatic (and pointless) debates about public policies. Instead of becoming immobilized by emotion-laden ideological issues, we can turn to fact-based explorations of the best ways to build a more prosperous future. We can take a longer view and face the future with a coherent vision, measurable targets and pragmatic strategies.
Building a coherent vision with far-sighted, community-driven ideas and pragmatic solutions will resonate across constituencies, communities and states. This won’t require a realignment of values, but it will call for reapplying our values to practical solutions. This will enable us to build non-partisan coalitions across urban, suburban, exurban and rural areas based on shared values, aspirations and ideas, not just demographic identity. Broad consensus will enhance the prospects of success.
Building Back Better, Together
The way we make change will be as important as the change we seek. We must be willing to defer immediate gratification for enduring progress. We must reject the things that mislead and divide us like misinformation, self-righteousness and distrust. We must start listening to one another and thinking about the world we are leaving to the next generation. We must work together to find new ways to attain common goals.
This week, our federal leaders have reached another impasse, this time on the biggest issue of the day—pandemic recovery. The Biden Administration has proposed a package of $1.9 trillion and ten moderate GOP Senators have proposed a modest alternative of $618 billion. There are several differences between the two plans, but arguably the most contentious issue involves state and local government aid. The Biden proposal includes $350 billion while the GOP alternative offers nothing. This gap seems insurmountable.
The Biden Administration has signaled its intention to enact it’s pandemic recovery plan through the reconciliation process, without a single GOP vote. And given the magnitude of the challenge, it should take that path to rescue the American people and economy, especially if the GOP leaders refuse to budge.
But the GOP counterproposal, if serious (meaning it would be accompanied by a significant number of GOP votes), is tantalizing. It offers at least a glimmer of hope for a new era of bipartisan action in DC. That our new President is serious about reunifying the country. That federal leaders from both parties can come together to get things done and start addressing our most intractable problems.
To that end, we propose a compromise around the issue of state and local government aid. In exchange for the support of ten GOP Senators for significant short-term state and local government aid, the Biden Administration should support a meaningful long-term reform initiative for reforming state and local government, one that would result in the restructuring of state and local government and related state and local obligations like pension funds (see our prior commentary).
This compromise, carried out on the national stage, could truly mark a new beginning in American politics. A renewed commitment to good governance that would inspire a new generation of civic activists and leaders. A much-needed first step toward civic progress and an enlightened democracy.