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When the Vision Meets the Real World

We’ve just been reading a splendid book by Erik Larson, titled “The Splendid and the Vile,” that tells the tale of Winston Churchill in the early years of World War II. At one point, Larson writes about the Marshall Plan which was designed to restore postwar Europe in the wake of the war.

We had always been under the impression that the credit for this effort belonged to Secretary of State George Marshall. After all, the plan was named for him.

But the book points to Averell Harriman, the Secretary of Commerce at the time, as the individual who coordinated the implementation of the plan.

We should have known better. Over the course of years, we’ve been aware that the people who generate new policies -- often elected officials – get much of the credit, or blame, for major projects and programs. But in the months or years that follow, it’s the implementers of the world who are the most vital players.

These are the folks who labor long days and nights to turn visions into reality and the people we turn to when we’re writing about government policies. Unsurprisingly, when we have these conversations, these individuals frequently talk about how important gubernatorial or mayoral missions have been in getting them started.

There’s some sense in that because without a broad goal, no one would be empowered to try to accomplish it. But it’s also smart, when talking to the press, to give credit to their bosses if they want to get ahead.

With this in mind, we were impressed by Governor Ned Lamont of Connecticut when he was talking about the state’s efforts to deal with the pandemic. For many months he gave a regular series of speeches about the state’s progress, but he almost always turned the microphone over to someone else who was central to making things happen. For example, when the state established the Connecticut Future Fund, he called on David Lehman, then commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development to deliver the message.

One state over, by contrast, New York’s then-governor Andrew Cuomo (who later resigned from office after scandals uprooted his term), was also giving speeches that catapulted him to national popularity as the hero of the calamity. It was very much a one-man show, which may have enhanced his fame (at least for a while) but didn’t give credit where it was due.

We can’t say that many of the men and women who labor in the trenches of implementation are particularly troubled by this kind of thing, though perhaps some are. Few people go into public service to get airtime on the nightly news.

But there is a deeper problem here. With much emphasis going to the grand new ideas of the world, we’ve seen any number of policy makers, as well as organizations that help to create new policies, ignore the second part of the equation, and that is a problem.

When policies are developed without regard for the ways in which they are going to be successfully developed, it’s entirely too easy for the people who create them to gloss over the critical next steps to fruition. Sometimes the problem can be as simple as a lack of plans for funding, which can leave new policy ideas as little more than paperwork exercises. Other times, the necessary technology just isn’t in place. In still other instances, there’s a lack of the necessary workforce to make things happen. The list goes on and on.

All of this can easily leave the unfortunate people given the task of implementing policy struggling as they try to figure out how to make something happen, when the original concept had flaws that would only be discovered as it was implemented.

At the end of the day, we believe that policy makers and implementers must work hand in hand before the ribbon cuttings and grand announcements. There are certainly some places in which that’s the way things work, but it’s our impression that there are far too few. There need to be more.


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