Bold Ideas and the Real World

Good ideas alone take you only so far. The policy world, after all, is littered with big ideas, badly executed.
by | September 20, 2006

Ideas have consequences. That's the title of a seminal 1948 book by Richard Weaver. An attack on modernism, the book's premise still rings true: Big, bold ideas can alter the course of history. That's especially true when those ideas come in response to tremendous problems. Unemployment insurance, the GI Bill, the student lunch program, deregulation of industry, privatization and welfare reform all emerged from attempts to solve the major challenges of their day.

But good ideas alone take you only so far. "Unless you translate big thoughts into concrete steps for action, they're pointless," wrote Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, the authors of Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. "Without execution, the breakthrough thinking breaks down, learning adds no value, people don't meet their stretch goals, and the revolution stops dead in its tracks. What you get is change for the worse...."1

Out of necessity, we have recently entered another age of big policy experiments at the state level. Massachusetts's health care program for the uninsured, Florida's Medicaid choice initiative and Texas's infrastructure public-private partnerships are key examples. These developments are good news. We need more BHAGs (big, hairy audacious goals) to meet today's complex challenges.

But, we also need to bear in mind the warning of Bossidy and Charan. The policy world, after all, is littered with big ideas, badly executed. Think of the urban renewal policies of the 1960s, which were designed to rejuvenate cities but which, in practice, destroyed many neighborhoods and helped trigger the flight of the middle class to the suburbs. It was a big, bold idea -- not to mention a flawed one -- that was poorly implemented.

Or consider the introduction of citizen choice in services ranging from education to health care. Recent history teaches us that choice without proper guidance can be a disaster. Some of the people needing assistance can't make rational choices about which service providers are best for them. Others may find that having too many choices is overwhelming and confusing.

This is what happened, to some extent, with the recent rollout of the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan, which required elderly Americans to choose among dozens of different plans, each covering a different list of medications and carrying different costs. Trying to sort through the complex menu to settle on the plans that best met their needs, many seniors and their caregivers became hopelessly mired in the fine print. Telephone lines set up to answer questions about the new program were temporarily overwhelmed and unable to provide service to all callers as crucial enrollment deadlines approached. People grew frustrated and scared. Though the program is now running much better, the early perceptions remain lodged.

Government agencies must tread carefully when introducing programs offering choices. Without good navigation support, lots of consumer choice can easily lead to confusion and disillusionment. This is especially true among the elderly, whose appetite for change is often limited.

Congestion pricing represents another example of a good idea whose execution is incredibly complex. The concept is simple: charge motorists to use the most crowded roadways, setting prices that reasonably match up demand and supply among the millions of vehicles that use this finite space. Such a basic economic principle has long ordered the provision of the food we eat, the housing we live in, the clothes we wear -- indeed, most of the myriad goods and services in our everyday lives.

Pricing roads as one way out of our congestion hell has become nearly an article of faith among transportation economists. But, until recently, whenever a courageous government tried to actually introduce the idea, they often failed to even get beyond the design phase. The reasons varied. There wasn't a bold political champion to rally support for the program. The needs of all stakeholders weren't taken into account. Not enough attention was paid to selling the idea to those groups who saw it as just another tax. The bottom line: problems of execution.

The mayor of London, on the other hand, introduced a congestion charge several years ago and succeeded where others had failed. Why? The city's transport agency spent two years beforehand war-gaming everything that could go wrong and designing strategies to overcome every potential hurdle. With good execution and the forceful leadership of the mayor, the city took a good policy idea -- but one that had previously been politically toxic -- and made it politically acceptable.

As states and local governments continue to improve the way they do business -- integrating services around the citizen, offering people more choices, providing multiple channels into government, giving citizens a greater say in government and making other admirable reforms -- they need to think hard about execution. In fact, they should spend at least four hours thinking through how to put their policies into practice for each hour they spend formulating the policies themselves.

This means heeding certain lessons that emerge time and again: Understand your customers intimately -- what services they need and how they prefer to receive them. Use strategies drawn from the private sector, but tailor them to government's particular needs. Don't try to do everything yourself -- collaborate with partners in other jurisdictions, in the nonprofit world and in the private sector. Tackle the easy parts of the problem first, and then apply what you learn to the tougher challenges. Spend a lavish amount of time on change management -- stakeholders must understand the real costs, benefits, and rationale.

Big ideas define where we want to be. A detailed strategy for execution ensures that we get there.

1. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, (New York: Crown Books, 2002) p.19.

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