It sure looks like public trust and confidence in government in the United States are suffering. Indeed, Americans in large numbers today seem not only to distrust but also resent their government. And I’m not just referring to those who have been participating in the so-called “tea parties” that are targeted at the federal government. Support of government at the state and sub-state levels is also on a path of erosion as citizens increasingly question the role and scope of public sector intervention, the unwillingness to cross the chasm of partisan differences to craft meaningful public policies, the uncontrollable pace in government expenditures, and the effectiveness and efficiency of public service delivery. In short, the attentive public is now asking if this really is “change that we can believe in.”
“They (citizens) have become convinced that government, especially the federal government, is wasteful, oppressive, and insensitive, and people have come to doubt that public officials act in the public interest or in accordance with commonly-held values.” This statement does not come on the heels of the healthcare “debate” (and I use this term loosely) that is still waging so-to-speak on Capitol Hill as I write this post. On the contrary, it was part of the opening chapter to a book entitled, Managing the Public’s Business, published in 1981, following the election of Ronald Reagan as President. The book’s author, Laurence E. Lynn, was at the time a professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and was a former Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) and in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The state of affairs that had brought about this collapse of popular confidence in government in 1980 had been referred to as a “crisis of competence,” and Professor Lynn’s book was focused on improving the capacity of government to discharge its responsibilities more effectively, efficiently, and equitably.
Let me suggest that managing the public’s business has never been as important as it is today. Political realignments, increasing global competitiveness and interdependencies, and emerging developments in technologies, to say nothing about the dire implications associated with the current, unstable economic and security milieu, all contribute to the need to carefully examine the public’s return on investment in government affairs. Indeed, the very nature of the “public’s business,” by definition, establishes it as the biggest business in the public marketplace, even in those countries that are still viewed as undeveloped or underdeveloped.
I would add that our nation, as well as so many others around the globe, suffers not so much from a “crisis of competence” but a “crisis of spirit.” In this regard, it is the essence of government, at its most fundamental level, that is at risk, not the capacity of elected, appointed, and career public officials to discharge their responsibilities effectively and efficiently. Only by reconnecting with its “soul” can good government be exposed and the challenges of guarding the public’s interest be accommodated with integrity, dignity, and, yes, transparency.
To be sure, this will require a different paradigm than that which currently guides the public sector, especially at the national level. For one, it will require that we collectively raise our consciousness and seek to discover common ground about the purpose and meaning of government. In the same vein, activist Jim Wallis, the founding editor of Sojourners magazine, has argued that “we can find common ground only by moving to higher ground.” In other words, constituency-based politics, with its factional interests, will not lead us to this higher ground. Politics has been reduced to the selfish struggle for power among competing interests and groups, instead of a process of searching for the common good. And this reductionist view of politics, I’m afraid, has not yet become part of the change that we can believe in.
Finding the point of balance between the common good and individual rights is no simple matter, especially when one recognizes that there is no such point–at least not one that is fixed in space and time. We live in an “age of paradox” observes British author, Charles Handy, and finding such a balance is at best a formidable challenge. Moreover, living in an age of paradox intimately applies to the government sector where the lack of order and clear-cut policy direction are commonplace.
It is also clear that government, however defined, tends to elicit deeply-seated value propositions about the boundaries between the public and private spheres of human existence. It is precisely this passionate desire for demarcation that sets the stage for understanding the spiritual side of public affairs and, more explicitly, points to the seat of the soul of government as a living entity in its own right. Government, in the words of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, “is more than a legal structure, more than an arrangement of offices; it is a manner of life, a moral spirit.”
To the extent that government is viewed as the physical manifestation of a collectivity of living beings also provides reason to believe that it possesses qualities of human systems of its own. Hence, it is no accident that the name “body politic” has been used frequently throughout recorded history when referring to government and its proper place in society. One of the qualities of living human systems, I think that most readers would agree, is deeply spiritual in nature.
It should come as no surprise that in order to affect reform in ancient Greek society, both Plato and Aristotle ultimately resorted to “spiritual means” as the preferred course of action. It was their view that in order “to heal disunion and division of spirit, one must employ a common education, which will put all men on the same spiritual level, and initiate them into the same spiritual community.” In line with the core message of this post, it is the concept and process of dialogue that are linked most closely to the notion of a “common education” to build the kind of spiritual community envisioned here. And it is through the process of authentic dialogue where we become really conscious of and connected to the “soul” in government. Alas, if only Plato and Aristotle were around today!
Dr. Alex Pattakos is the author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts (www.prisonersofourthoughts.com) and Elaine Dundon is author of The Seeds of Innovation (www.seedsofinnovation.com). They are co-authors of Innovating with Meaning (forthcoming). Note: A second, revised and updated edition of Prisoners of Our Thoughts will be released in July 2010.