The Most Important Work

October 2017
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Former Publisher
Former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City

As near as I can recall, I’ve been reading Governing since the first issue appeared in October 1987. By that time I’d been working in government for a little over 15 years and had risen to a position of leadership, heading the performance audit group for the Tennessee state auditor. The magazine gave me affirmation and confidence that I was not alone -- that there were others who also felt that government could do more and could do it better. It gave me a platform from which I could learn from their successes and their failures.

Senior Editor Alan Ehrenhalt has been with Governing almost from its inception, and his essay in this issue traces the shifting relationships among the federal, state and local levels of government during our 30-year history. For most of that time, Ehrenhalt writes, states and localities sought the power to act independently. That’s because while the president and Congress soak up huge amounts of attention, the federal government is, in fact, very distant from the lives of ordinary people. “Governing” is a verb, and the bulk of it is done at the state and local level.

The other theme that Ehrenhalt traces is that these shifting governmental roles have occurred against a backdrop of ongoing political and social conflict. We seem to always live in turbulent times, but we have a sort of collective amnesia that allows us to smooth over the rough spots in our past, leaving us thinking that the present moment is somehow especially dangerous or dire. History teaches us otherwise. In Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America, published in 1931, Louis Adamic described horrific conflict through much of the nation’s history to that point.

It was during just such a time -- after a small personal political victory that seemed to lead directly to continued conflict -- that I was asked by a supporter, “When is it over?” The answer is that it’s never over. The public’s work is never done. But doing it is the most important and rewarding work there is. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently that the ancient Greeks believed that “no other arena requires as much wisdom, tenacity, foresight and empathy.”

Meeting that requirement is a pretty good description of Governing’s mission. As an enterprise, we’ve changed a lot in three decades. In addition to the print magazine, we now have a robust website with millions of visitors, a sophisticated research team and some 40 live events each year. But our underlying mission still remains the same -- to help state and local government leaders govern better.