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Why do people laugh when we talk about the good government can do?

In the days before the pandemic shut down most social gatherings that we might have attended, one of the first obligatory questions in polite chit-chat would be: “And what do you do for a living?”

Our first answer, typically, has always been “we’re journalists,” even though our work extends in all sorts of directions other than traditional journalism. But when someone probed a bit, we’d say, “We do research, analysis and writing about governments, in an effort to help them to run better.”

The reaction, frequently, has ranged from a polite quizzical smile to outright laughter.

The very idea that state and local governments can and do improve the way they deliver services seemed to be a humorously implausible notion to these new acquaintances. It’s our guess that the readers of this website have had similar experiences.

We think that this phenomenon has just gotten worse.

We read all kinds of local newspapers, in order to do the work we do, and there seems to be a sad consensus forming that governments are just growing steadily less capable of solving the hard problems.

One of the reasons, we suspect, is the long delay in getting out from under the pandemic itself. Governors and mayors have, over the course of the last 22 months or so, intermittently said that things are finally getting better and we will soon return to the kind of lives we led in the days before March of 2020. That hasn’t come to pass yet, of course, and the surprise visit of the Omicron variant has led many to suspect that we are in a permanent state of abnormal times.

As our friend Don Moynihan, a professor at Georgetown University recently wrote, “As the pandemic continues, a series of forces will combine to reduce faith in political institutions. The third year of the pandemic will be extraordinarily damaging.”

Certainly, governments could have done some things differently, in ways that might have helped the nation fight the pandemic more effectively. A couple of months ago, a paper we co-authored with the brilliant Don Kettl for the IBM Center for the Business of Government was released, outlining twelve lessons learned from the pandemic which can be applied to create governments that are better able to fight future crises of this nature.

But, while the pandemic may have led people to doubt the capacity of government to solve problems, that doesn’t mean that government is incapable of doing a lot of good. An unprecedented attack on our serenity like COVID tests the capacity of governments to fix that which ails society in an extreme way. Flaws in approach shouldn’t provide the signal that government is incompetent or incapable any more than the lack of a cure for cancer means that medical science has generally failed.

Longer term, the increasingly partisan nature of government has provided another cause for doubt in governments’ capacity to solve problems.

Let’s say that General Motors ran a series of ads claiming that Ford cars were likely to explode; and Ford ran its own series of ads claiming that General Motors vehicles had brakes that were defective. Nobody would be inclined to buy either brand.

We think that’s very much the way things are working as people running for elective office run attack ads come election season.

As long as there’s an insistent drumbeat about the perceived failures of previous administrations, how can anyone expect people to think that new administrations will be any better?

Another factor contributing to the suspicion about the capacity of government to improve lives is that there’s been a trend to wanting quick solutions to long-standing problems. But overnight solutions to problems like homelessness, flaws in policing, or unsafe bridges just don’t exist. Patience is key.

On reflection, we realize we’ve devoted our careers observing state and local government to exploring the incremental changes that can lead to major advances. For example, we’ve written extensively about the need for better data upon which to make decisions. As time has passed, reliance on data has become increasingly prevalent. Right now, we’re working on an article about the use of data to help develop a more equitable nation.

But while we think that work is critical, we know clearly that understanding the underlying roots behind the lack of equity, diversity and inclusion isn’t going to lead to a panacea. It’s a step in a process.

We think that armed with appropriate information, progress can be made, not just in trying to create a more equitable nation, but in dealing with a whole host of problems that beset us.

And that’s why we do what we do. Any questions?


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