Three Keys to Breaking Government Gridlock

Overcoming it is not a hopeless challenge. The trick is to look for the issues that lie beneath the surface.
by | December 19, 2012

Babak Armajani

Babak Armajani was a Governing contributor. He was the chair for the Public Strategies Group, where he and his partners focused on transforming bureaucracies into customer-focused enterprises.

Sometimes we get stuck. When action that would benefit the common good is inhibited by differences among individuals, groups, organizations or political parties, we call it gridlock.

The term of course, comes from a form of traffic congestion that sometimes occurs in cities with a grid-pattern street layout. Imagine we are experiencing congestion in an intersection. It is caused by the backup of traffic from an adjacent intersection, which is caused by a backup at another adjacent intersection, and so on. The engineering solution is not to focus on the congestion in our intersection but to go back to the root cause of the backups at those adjacent intersections.

In the public sector, we see gridlock in many varying manifestations--a city and county government that find it difficult to collaborate even when doing so would be in the interests of both; the federal government and states struggling to work out a simple formula by which states produce better results with less money while getting flexibility from the feds in how they do so; or two city department heads who block collaboration because of their mutual rivalry. And the list goes on.

So how do we overcome gridlock in government? As with traffic gridlock, the breakthroughs lie in unveiling and understanding the deeper issues below the surface. While the particulars will vary from one situation to the next, consider these three clues to discovering and dealing with the root causes of gridlock you may be experiencing.

• First, gridlock is sometimes rooted in a competition over "winning" and "losing." We get stuck because, in this paradigm, success necessarily means that for one party to win, the other must lose. The solution lies in changing the rules about winning and losing. For example, today we are conditioned to think that the debate over federal fiscal policy is a competition between Republicans and Democrats. Who will "win?" Because neither side can afford to let the other win, gridlock is perpetuated. We all lose.

Most Americans know this. Polls show they want the issue resolved. They are tired of having the common good be the loser. Could the definition of success be redefined? Could the voters decide to make the perpetuators of partisan gridlock the losers and those who sit down to work out a deal for the common good the winners? Could the media revisit how it defines this issue?

• Second, gridlock can be rooted in what organizational behaviorists call "representative dynamics." This phenomenon occurs when each constituency, organization or jurisdiction is represented by someone--a legislator, for example--to advance their interests. While representatives from differing parties might be capable of sitting down and working out solutions, their constituencies almost certainly will punish them for "selling out." We see this in labor negotiations and jurisdictional conflicts as well as in our national fiscal debate. "Getting primaried" has become a term of art in describing the power of intractable constituencies over their representatives.

The key to getting at this root cause is for the representatives to lead in service to the interests of their constituents rather than to follow their narrow positions. "Interest-based bargaining," in which the two sides start with declarations of their interests rather than with specific proposals, is based on this principle. In the partisan political realm, this means our elected officials would help us define our real interests rather than holding so tightly to the constricting narrow positions we have traditionally used as substitutes for those interests. It is much easier to find mutually acceptable solutions - even to something as daunting as our fiscal challenges - using such an approach, sometimes referred to as "win-win bargaining."

• Third, we all fear change and usually avoid it if we can. Breaking gridlock often means that we have to change not only the way we define winning and losing and the way we authorize our representatives but also the way we think and the way we talk. It is not easy to get out of that rut. Social science give us some clues, however, and our literature is packed with examples and case studies of how to do this.

The key is building trust. In their book "Vitality: Igniting Your Organization's Spirit," my colleagues Mary and Chuck Lofy define trust as "a felt sense of safety." How can we make it safer to enact the changes that are in the interests of the common good? Are there ways to reduce the punitive behaviors that threaten those who would change? Are there safeguards that can be introduced that raise our sense of security? Is there a step-by-step approach that makes it easier for both parties to move toward the common good?

Gridlock need not be the preordained, ultimate state of things. Many cities and counties are finding breakthroughs in collaborating with one another. Many of the nation's governors have joined together to offer practical solutions to the fiscal challenges we face. School districts are working with community groups, businesses and their city governments to improve learning outcomes for kids. And in the Middle East, some Palestinians and Israelis are working together to build opportunities for peace. However large or small, these all are breakthroughs that are worth our study.


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