Better Government

The Complexity of Simplicity in Government

Complexity, says Brookings Institution social mobility expert Richard V. Reeves, “is the friend of the upper middle class.” To me, Reeves’ observation provides insight into the insidious way governments can, even without realizing it, work against the bulk of the people they seek to serve. It reminds me of my days as a social worker, when a lot of my clients would ask me to interpret government letters and forms for them. I worked for the state of Pennsylvania, but the forms they brought to me were from the city, the county, the state, the feds. It didn’t matter -- it was all “the government” to them, and the special skill I brought was that I could interpret bureaucratese.

If what Reeves says is true, then what Nick Macchione, director of health and human services for San Diego County, Calif., calls “potent simplicity” is the friend of everyone else. Macchione and his colleagues used the concept to create a clear, empowering message to underpin Live Well San Diego, the county’s strategic community health plan. They came up with notion of “3-4-50” to communicate the idea that three behaviors -- smoking, lack of exercise and poor nutrition -- contribute to four chronic diseases that cause more than half of the county’s deaths. READ MORE

Why America Should Redefine Political Losers

I served as mayor of Kansas City from 2007 to 2011, and was its first mayor in more than a hundred years to not win re-election. I left office with my reputation more or less in tatters, and the pundits and political players in Kansas City politics regard me as a failure.

I think of this discouraging and disappointing experience whenever I hear someone -- invariably a person who has never held elective office -- declare that what is needed to solve this or that problem is “political will.” What those people are really saying is that all that is required to solve a knotty, complex public policy issue is for a politician to be willing to lose the next election. READ MORE

The Problem With Evidence-Based Government

The drive for evidence-based policymaking has moved from the world of wonks and analysts into the mainstream. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in government who opposes the idea, especially as it has now merged with an emphasis on big data and data analytics. There is even a federal Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking.

As a former government auditor, I certainly stand foursquare for the use of evidence in drawing conclusions about what works well and how to improve what doesn’t. But there is an important challenge that advocates of evidence-based policymaking need to recognize: the human factor. READ MORE

Words of Wisdom for Public Officials Trying to Connect With Citizens

Many public officials feel that much of the cynicism and distrust surrounding government exists because they haven’t properly “told their story.” Yet when the occasional media report surfaces about a jurisdiction engaging marketing or public relations professionals, the tone is usually critical, as if this is something that governments should not do.

That’s odd when you consider that, more and more, public officials are being urged to see their constituents as customers. After all, what successful business does not do marketing? Certainly a case can be made that public officials should not spend public money to simply promote themselves. But devoting time and resources to communicating with constituents, understanding their needs and explaining what government is doing is vitally important. We could probably legitimize it by calling it transparency. READ MORE

America’s 20-Year Winter

It may feel like autumn, but it’s winter in America. In her 2014 book, ReGENERATION: A Manifesto for America’s Next Leaders, the economist and futurist Rebecca Ryan builds on the concept of American “seasons” introduced by Neil Howe and William Strauss. Ryan writes that, much like the seasons of the year, “American life and society cycle through seasons, too,” and that each lasts about 20 years.

By that calculation, this is America’s fourth winter. The first was the period of the Revolution. The second was the Civil War and Reconstruction. And the third was the Great Depression. Our current winter began with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In winter the crises seem to come in waves. In this case, after 9/11 came the end of America’s longest running bull market, in 2002, which prompted Wall Street to invent new tools to make money. And that led, in September 2008, to the beginning of the Great Recession. READ MORE