A Structured, Disciplined Approach to Improving Government
- We all want good government, but we have to be willing to join those who quietly do the hard, thankless work that must be done to make government better for everyone
- Government is complicated, but it can be continually improved, especially with a structured, efficient approach like the See It, Fix It, Own It and Track It system outlined below
- See It – Seeing government clearly—without the glare of political theater—is a prerequisite to fixing it
- Fix It – Fixing government requires much more than finger-pointing, sloganeering or magical thinking, it requires commitment, resources, hard work and smart tools
- Own It— Visionary governance, the kind that truly serves the public interest, requires planning, preparation, organization, perseverance and a willingness to own the outcomes of that work
- Track It – Holding public officials accountable—especially those we like—forges better leaders which ultimately produces the kind of government that can restore our faith in democracy
Our democracy has seen better days. Public opinion polls show declining faith in democracy, a trend inflamed by too many politicians. For the first time in memory, we can see how democracy could be stolen from us, not just for one election cycle, but forever. If we want to preserve it, we must act now.
What should we do? The answer may be simpler than it appears—reform government. If we could make government work better, and for all of us, we would take a big step toward restoring public trust in government. In turn, reclaiming government’s legitimacy offers what may be the single most promising path to renewing our faith in democracy. Not just its institutions, like the courts, but its processes, like elections.
Some argue that we cannot improve government without first exorcising the demons of our politics. Sounds logical, but probably a fool’s errand. We simply don’t have the luxury—let alone the means—to repair our politics first. During the last year, we nearly lost everything once considered sacrosanct—our reputation, our democracy, our way of life—to our Hunger Game politics. Despite everything that has gone wrong, there is precious little evidence of our willingness to abandon our political tribes or cultish loyalties.
What if we approached government like we do most things? Our families, work and communities? What if we reclaimed our political independence from media outlets and political cults? Freed ourselves from our ideological prisons. Shifted our focus to making government better, to making our communities more livable, to making our nation more just and prosperous. In working together to solve problems, we just might rediscover what we once knew—that some differences can make us stronger.
To improve government, we must put our political passions away. We must confront the challenge of improving government much like we would anything else—with focus, discipline and resolve. What we need is a scalable framework for change, one that every community could use to chart its course, solve problems, harness local assets and ensure accountability. What we need is a simple system that we all can use. The four-track See It, Fix It, Own It and Track It system outlined below illustrates that kind of system.
One of the most formidable barriers to better government is our bitter partisan divide. According to the Pew Research Center, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on issues grew from 15 points in 1994 to 36 points in 2017. And the chasm widens for specific issues. For instance, from 2015 to 2017, the percent of Republicans disdaining higher education rose from 37 to 58 percent. In contrast, 70 percent of Democrats approved of higher education. The partisan gap has widened even more on race and gender issues.
Republicans and Democrats have long held different political positions. The real problem is that they often disagree on fundamental facts. Republicans seek their news from a few media outlets like Fox News while Democrats turn to outlets like MSNBC and CNN. More of us have become susceptible to misinformation and conspiracy theories. The Trump presidency did not start this return to the dark ages, but it did exacerbate it. His combative tweets and derisive rhetoric, coupled with frenzied media coverage, divided us almost without regard to substantive issues. Few political figures have left us so angry or distrustful of one another.
Seeing government is the first step. With honesty and humility, we can see our strengths and weaknesses without flinching. With discipline and skill, we can diagnose the problems we want to solve and the assets upon which we can build. With the right tools, such as those listed below, we can set the stage for real progress.
- Vision – A far-sighted vision for our community or state, one that captures our aspirations and provides a broad guide for future civic leaders and public executives
- Watch – Objective, concise diagnoses of critical challenges and issues, from jobs to education to infrastructure, tailored to the specific state, region or community
- Stories – Evocative stories illustrating the impact of civic problems on ordinary people and showing how new policies could improve their lives
- Profile – A thumbnail sketch of a civic entity (e.g., state agency, city or school district) or program (e.g., unemployment, educational or public health) to help citizens learn more about government
Seeing government is a prerequisite to fixing it. If we regain our ability to our see our government clearly—without the distractions of political slogans and personalities—we can begin the hard work of making it better.
Our nation faces a myriad of vexing problems—equity, unemployment, schools, housing, health care, infrastructure, public debt and many more. The biggest problem right now, the one that must be solved before we can gather ourselves to tackle the others, is the pandemic. Until we wrestle this fearsome monster to the ground, we can do little else.
In fact, the pandemic is the very kind of problem that government is supposed to anticipate, prevent and mitigate, if not defeat. On some fronts, like treatment and vaccine development where the private sector dominated, we have had considerable success. On most others, especially those led by government, public health, testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution, our record has been disheartening. In some cases, public officials have even undermined public health measures like mask wearing. With over 400,000 deaths, our fragmented, confusing system of government (federalism) has epically failed us.
The pandemic has exposed many societal ills, but it has been particularly unsparing in revealing the flaws of our governmental system. There is so much to fix that we may find it hard to determine where to begin. If we start close to home, with the local governments we know best, the following tools could help:
- Ideas – A menu of best practices and other promising opportunities for solving serious civic problems, such as inequity, joblessness, racism, homelessness, poor health, crumbling infrastructure and fiscal instability
- Frame – An easy-to-use digital messaging system linking facts, values and ideas to persuasive messages for promoting those ideas
- Catalyst – A snapshot of a vetted civic group identified as a possible partner or stakeholder in connection with an anticipated community initiative
- Bridge – A digital tool for helping potential volunteers connect with a civic group and select the most suitable civic engagement activity from a simple menu
Such tools can help civic leaders fix the problems in front of them, determine the most feasible options for resolving civic issues and mobilize civic activists around an aspirational, yet pragmatic action agenda.
In January, San Francisco’s Board of Education voted to change the names of 44 schools based on a committee report. The affected schools included those named after Senator Feinstein (for being mayor when a Confederate flag was temporarily displayed), Abraham Lincoln (for his Native American policies), Paul Revere (for his role in the Penobscot Expedition) and George Washington (for owning slaves).
The issue is not that the Board’s decision was historically inaccurate (e.g., the Penobscot Expedition was not about colonizing Native American land) or factually challenged (e.g., the Parks Department, not Mayor Feinstein, replaced the flag after it had been removed by a protester). Nor is the issue one of proportion (e.g., balance Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves with his administration’s Native American policies).
The real issue is the School Board’s failure to fulfill its duty to its students, staff and citizens. With so many issues facing urban schools (e.g., curriculum, teacher quality, child hunger, school maintenance and re-openings) and so little time to address them, a responsible school board must use its time wisely. Ensnaring itself in secondary issues—as important as they might seem—is governing malfeasance. Pursuing the impulse of the moment, at the expense of more significant needs, may be emotionally gratifying, but they do not ensure better education.
Owning it—assuming the awesome responsibilities of governing—requires requires planning, preparation, organization and perseverance. There are several tools that can help public executives and boards fulfill these requirements, including the following:
- Guide – A set of tools (e.g., work plan, guidelines, decision calendar and scheduling system) to help new executives navigate the transition period between election and inauguration
- Pulse – Assessment checklists for documenting a government’s current strengths and weaknesses and identifying its competitive standing and strategic risks and opportunities
- Forecast – A model for forecasting the fiscal impact of proposed policies and helping staff determine feasible ideas and build a framework for the initial executive budget proposal
- Agenda – An enterprise-wide action plan with metrics for implementing planned initiatives that identifies those requiring legislative action, regulatory action, public expenditures or debt issuance
With such tools, boards, commissions, governors, mayors and other public executives can govern with vision, purpose and efficacy and help their agencies meet the daunting challenges that confront them.
Most of us understand accountability, at least in a personal sense. When someone we love, like one of our children, does something wrong, we grasp it’s potential as a teaching moment. If the child’s misstep is serious enough, if it shocks, unnerves or angers us, we know that we must hold the child accountable. Not to exact retribution, but to instruct. To discipline the child is to prepare the child for the challenges ahead.
Regrettably, we have lost this common sense of accountability in politics. We apply different standards of accountability to the politicians we oppose and those we support. When an official we disdain steps out of line, we express disgust, hurl accusations, demand impeachment or support recall. When our own candidate commits a serious infraction, we make excuses. It wasn’t that big of a deal. The lesson was learned. The law is vague. It is time to move on.
When Bill Clinton was President, he had sex with an intern, committed perjury and lied to the American people. When Rod Blagojevich was Governor of Illinois, he orchestrated (and was ultimately convicted of) several “pay to play” schemes, including extortion and selling gubernatorial appointments. When Donald Trump was President, he lied, abused his powers, obstructed justice, mismanaged a pandemic, undermined democracy and incited domestic terrorism (Trump also commuted Blago’s sentence). While these cases involve dramatically different offenses, they shared one commonality—their political opponents expressed outrage and their political supporters resisted or redefined accountability.
We cannot have good government without meaningful, consistent accountability. This means diligently tracking the progress of our communities and public institutions, identifying problems (like fiscal instability) as early as possible and making needed course corrections. Potential tracking tools include the following:
- Scorecard – A community report card for assessing competitiveness, tracking progress around vital civic issues and highlighting improvement opportunities
- Gauge – An organizational report that tracks the performance of public agencies around enterprise-wide metrics (e.g., financial, organizational and service) and suggests needed adjustments
- Console – A civic engagement report that enables civic groups to monitor volunteer deployment and utilization, identify potential mobilization gaps and highlight opportunities for more activism
- Drive – A political tracking report for holding public officials accountable for specific decisions, enabling civic leaders and citizens alike to monitor public votes and inform officials of desired civic actions
Tracking government means holding public officials accountable, especially those for whom we voted. Ensuring accountability produces better leaders. It reminds those we elect and appoint that they are there to serve us. Ultimately, it produces better government and more faith in democracy.
More Work, Less Show
Most of us say we want better government, but few of us are willing to do more than talk or vent. We complain about taxes, but don’t read public documents or attend council meetings to find out how they’re spent. We say we want more bang for the buck, but are more inclined to pass the buck than get involved.
If we truly want government to work for all of us, we have to be willing to do the work. We have to spend more time outside our bubbles and start doing the little things that cumulatively make a big difference. We have to be more work horse than show horse. When it comes to government, we have to … see it, fix it, own it and track it.