Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is Government Broken?

I know you'll be shocked to hear that most Americans (86%) think so, according to a recent poll noted in this CNN piece.

Now, before we blame "government" for being broken, I think we should take a step back and look at how we as citizens contribute to the problem. Sure, there are a lot of things that could be fixed about what "those people in Washington, DC" are doing. But there's also a lot that can be fixed about what citizens around the country are doing (or not doing) when it comes to our democracy.

This isn't a popular perspective, obviously. But I think we should think positively about what we as a citizenry can do to improve our own involvement with and understanding of government.

So, what can we do? Well, here's a start:

First, I think that a big part of the problem with government is that citizens have an inaccurate perception of what it's supposed to do. It's actually supposed to be completely and totally inefficient. In fact, the Founding Fathers set up a system designed to encourage argument and dissent. They did a fabulous job. So, citizens really need to lower their expectations of what's possible from our government. Imagine running a business with 535 people on your board of directors. How much would you get done? And yet we think government is broken if Congress and the Administration can't solve major problems like climate change, health care reform and unemployment all in the course of a year.

Second, unfortunately numerous studies and my own experiences indicate that people do not know basic things about even the most representative of the branches of government, the Congress. Frankly, it's OK not to know these things if you're not really interested in the policy process. But it's not OK to complain about government being broken without considering our own lack of engagement and understanding. When a majority of Americans can't name their elected representatives in Congress, that's a problem -- and may, in fact, be one of the reasons why the system isn't working as well as we'd like.

We also need to stop sending mixed messages to our elected representatives. Many people say they don't want government to spend money on any programs -- until it's a program that they personally are interested in. We all need to recognize that everyone has different interests and the role of government is to do its best to amalgamate those interests into one cohesive whole. This takes an incredible amount of compromise and a really long time.

The good news in all this is that citizens actually have an amazing power to make a difference. They just need to know how to do it effectively. I've seen, time and time again, skeptical people who strongly believe they can't be heard be amazingly transformed after visiting with their elected representatives. Once they know a little about the process and their own role in it, they really begin to understand how they can influence policy. And that, to me, suggests that there's hope for government: even when it's at its most frustrating.

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