What People Get Wrong About ‘Political Will’

It’s not some innate quality -- good leaders must create it.

LBJ2
(Wikipedia)
At a recent Governing roundtable, I heard once again that the failure to act on a serious public problem was due to a lack of “political will.” Hearing this from people who are wise and good public officials always leaves me a little annoyed. I agree with David Roberts of Vox, who wrote, “To me, it has always sounded like the political equivalent of the Force in the Star Wars movies. It explains everything and nothing.”

When you hear a public official or pundit say that the reason this or that desirable thing cannot be done is because of a lack of political will, what you are actually hearing is that person blaming other people’s moral failings. This is born of a lack of insight and analysis. The Oxford English Dictionary defines political will as “the firm intention or commitment of a government to carry through a policy, especially one that is not immediately successful or popular.” Political will is not some kind of immutable and innate personal quality. It is not the same as political courage or conviction. It is a deliberate social construct, and every positive advance of public policy rests upon its successful creation.

As the Oxford definition suggests, issues that require political will are ones that are not easily resolved. What is required for success is the creation of ever-broader coalitions. There will be opposition and conflict. The status quo is what it is because of powerful interests, and, as Frederick Douglass said, change always requires struggle because “power concedes nothing without a demand.” The best way to manage that conflict is, paradoxically, to stop fighting. That is, to stop responding to and vilifying the intransigents on the other side. Instead, build a narrative that embraces the values of the majority of folks who are not unalterably committed to either side. What is needed is not moderation or even necessarily compromise, but effective stories that appeal to widely held beliefs about ourselves. Despite the terrible rhetoric we hear all the time, we have far more in common than is widely believed.

Few people in public life have been better at creating political will than President Lyndon B. Johnson. Notice how, in his address to Congress advocating passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, he focused on our interconnectedness. While his objective was to secure the voting rights of African-Americans, he did not frame the problem that way. What he said was, “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans -- not as Democrats or Republicans -- we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

Rather than expressing dismay or scorn or outrage over the way the political system works, people who actually want to effect change need to learn how to use that system. As LBJ understood so well, they need to learn to create political will.

Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?
Sponsored
As more state and local jurisdictions have placed a priority on creating sustainable and resilient communities, many have set strong targets to reduce the energy use and greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with commercial and residential buildings.
Sponsored
As more people get vaccinated and states begin to roll back some of the restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic — schools, agencies and workplaces are working on a plan on how to safely return to normal.
Sponsored
The solutions will be a permanent part of government even after the pandemic is over.
Sponsored
See simple ways agencies can improve the citizen engagement experience and make online work environments safer without busting the budget.
Sponsored
Whether your agency is already a well-oiled DevOps machine, or whether you’re just in the beginning stages of adopting a new software development methodology, one thing is certain: The security of your product is a top-of-mind concern.
Sponsored
The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2022, over half of the workforce will require significant reskilling or upskilling to do their jobs—and this data was published prior to the pandemic.
Sponsored
Part math problem and part unrealized social impact, recycling is at a tipping point. While there are critical system improvements to be made, in the end, success depends on millions of small decisions and actions by people.
Sponsored
Government legal professionals are finding Lexis+ Litigation Analytics from LexisNexis valuable for understanding a judge’s behavior and courtroom trends, knowing other attorneys’ track records, and ensuring success in civil litigation cases.