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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Production Capability in the Current Situation in Washington

From the public’s perspective, the protracted stalemate in Washington, the partial shutdown of government, and the threat of a default next week are becoming more matters of process than of the underlying issues involved. 

I think here of the late Stephen Covey’s distinction between production and production capability, his famous P/PC balance introduced in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In Covey's view, one often becomes maximally effective by focusing on the process -- setting up the capabilities to produce -- rather than just on production per se. The time spent setting up systems and processes for handling a given task will, in the long run, pay off with much less total time spent on addressing that task.  This echoes the old saying attributed to Abe Lincoln, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax."  

A highly effective person focuses on the processes and ways in which things are handled, not just the thing itself. As is said in still another old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” 

The idea: Focusing on the big picture process often works much better than just a focus on the minutiae of quotidian activities.   

I bring all of this up because now, for the first time in Gallup history, more Americans mention problems with the way government is working as the nation’s top problem than they mention any other single issue. This is new. The dominance of worries about the way government works is the highest in Gallup's history of asking this question, which dates back to 1939. An important comparison comes from the 1995-1996 shutdown, when mentions of the debt/deficit still were significantly higher than mentions of dysfunction in government as the top problem. This time, it’s different. Americans now are much more likely to focus on the governmental process. 

Of course, this isn't the only evidence indicating that the American people view the effectiveness and efficiency of their federal government a little differently than they view, say, Google. In fact, in our August update (and this was before the current imbroglio), 65% of Americans had an immediately positive reaction to "the computer industry," while 27% had a positive reaction to "the federal government." Eighty-one percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the "way the nation is being governed." Eleven percent approve of the job being done by Congress.

Republican leaders may say that the focus should be on too much government spending or on the Affordable Care Act, and Democratic leaders may say that the focus should be on the need to provide healthcare to everyone and the values that accrue from federal government spending. But, from the American people’s perspective, the focus should be more on the process by which their representatives get together and figure out how to solve whatever problems are out there.

Rising above it all, the public seems to be saying that the elected representatives need to get a system going by which the naturally occurring and normal differences on policy are negotiated and resolved. We hear both sides saying, “I won’t negotiate.” The issue should be, from the public’s perspective, "What do we need to do to figure out how to negotiate?" From the people's viewpoint, the No. 1 problem the government needs to address is how it goes about its business.  

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was not a masterful military strategist or tactician. In fact, he had not been a combat commander of any kind in any war prior to his arrival in London, England, in 1942 as a relatively unknown major general. But Eisenhower rose to power, heading up the invasion of North Africa and then becoming supreme commander of all allied forces in Europe, because he was able to negotiate and placate a bunch of very strong egos -- including Bernard Montgomery, Charles de Gaulle, and George Patton -- and get them working together by seeking compromise, and in some instances, subordinating his own ego. What's needed in the current situation are more elected representatives like Ike. We have plenty of strong egos and earnestly held positions and convictions of "I'm right" on both sides in Washington today.  The goal should be: What is the best process by which those in Washington can get things going and avoid destroying this village in order to save it?

The public is pretty clear on their instructions to their representatives: Compromise rather than stick to principle. Americans accept that there are fundamental differences of opinion on the issues involved. But there are always going to be fundamental differences of opinion on issues. The key from the public's perspective is the process by which elected officials figure out how to come to agreement on these differences without consistently threatening the viability of the republic.  


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