From health care to the environment, fixing complicated problems isn’t impossible in America … yet

Citizens of all 50 states are reeling from the budget cuts caused by the financial crisis.  Our nation’s fiscal nightmare is literally breaking state governments.

Or is it the other way around?

In a penetrating article for Governing Magazine, author Rob Gurwitt puts forward evidence that we have it exactly backwards.  A budget crisis isn’t wrecking state governments;  state governments are so broken that it’s creating a perpetual budget crisis.
“The realization has started to dawn — and not just in the hardest-hit places — that fundamental assumptions about how state government operates need rewiring,” he writes.  “The little budget tricks that states have tended to rely on in order to keep the electorate happy have mostly run their course.”

But we don’t need mazagine articles to tell us that govenments, from state to federal, are having trouble turning the ship of state around. 

But is that even doable?  Some say no:  a recent Wall street Journal article said the reason President Obama’s attempt to reform health care is failing is that you literally can’t reform health care:  at 16% of the economy, it’s too big.  Can’t be done.  Government is simply too large to transform.  End of story. 

Gary Metcalf disagrees.  It can be done, and thre’s even reason to hope. 

Metcalf, a member of the Organizational Systems faculty of Saybrook’s College of Psychology and Humanistic Studies, has seen these issues up close:  the former president of the International Society for Systems Sciences, he also teaches at the Federal Executive Institute of the U.S. government.  He says there are forces lining up for and against big change.  Some of them aren’t the ones you would expect. 

Perhaps the biggest fear people have is that moneyed interests are all lined up against systemic change. Not so fast:  Metcalf says there are also plenty of moneyed interests desperate to fix the broken systems.

“There’s no doubt that companies of all sizes are looking at the government stimulus money as a giant pork barrel, just wanting to get what they can.  Huge corporations are seeing this as their income stream for the next few years,” he says.  “But I have been talking to people in industry recently who really seem to understand the challenges, and the need not just to fix the status quo, but to rethink how it works.” 

All that money in politics isn’t necessarily a good thing – it creates problems all its own, and certainly there’s a lot less support from business for reinventing government if they don’t see a profit in it.  But the support is there, Metcalf says, and it can be used.

Another hopeful sign is that non-traditional actors are starting to appear in civic life:  major non-profit foundations that are extremely well funded and dedicated to making large scale changes.

“Look at the Gates Foundation, Warren Buffet, the Harlem Children’s Zone,” Metcalf says.  “These are people working above and beyond the traditional boundaries.  It doesn’t take a popular vote to do what they’re going to do, they have the resources, and they’re able and willing to address things in a different way.  It’s not the same as a government system change, which is preferable, but it does have the potential to make major changes, and showcase that success.”

Is this enough?  Probably not.  Metcalf says that the key piece that is missing is easy access to the big picture for ordinary citizens.  It’s not that we don’t have enough information at our finger tips – this is an information age, after all – but that too much of the media reporting focuses on the small scale instead of the big picture.

“The public news media tends to present information to the audiences that they cater to by scaling it down and diluting it.  The result is that it’s harder to explain to people why short-term sacrifice makes sense for a long-term goal,” he says.  “If all they’re hearing about is the sacrifice, then when you really start talking about meaningful reform, their eyes will glaze over.  It’s not that the information is wrong, it’s just not palatable to a general audience that hasn’t been asked to think that way.”

In the end, Metcalf thinks, it is unlikely that any one section of society will be able to force a reinvented government on any other – that kind of “reform” is civil war by other means, and it’s not likely to work.  “As long as the game is ‘us vs. them,’ then the ultimate goal really isn’t a better result for the whole populace.”

But it is possible that if government, industry, and an informed public sit down to work issues out, that they can come up with amazing solutions. 

That’s quite possible, he says, but it won’t happen easily.

What worries him is the timing:  these issues aren’t going to stay where they are while we get our act together.  Health care, the environment, the economy … these problems are only going to get more complicated over time, and therefore harder to solve.  “The scale of the systems has gotten so big that yes, it makes it harder to find the will to address them,” he says.  “More importantly, it requires combining the will with the leadership to get change started.”

He hopes that a broader realization that the problems we’re having not are not temporary crises … that it’s not the budget crisis that’s breaking government, but a broken government that’s causing a perpetual budget crisis … will help us all start to come to the table. 

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