As we are heading towards another national election, the grumblings about the dysfunction in Washington D.C. intensify and – believe it or not - there are even some initiatives of bipartisan nature that try to do something about it:
- · The Bipartisan Policy Center published, on June 24, 2014 the report by its Commission on Political Reform titled “Governing in a polarized America: A Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen our Democracy.”
- · No Labels offered earlier in the year a “Shared Vision for a Stronger America” with contributions from politicians from both sides of the aisle, led by former governor Jon Huntsman and Senator Joe Manchin.
We should all applaud and encourage initiatives like these. They represent real efforts to move the dial. Particularly the No Labels pamphlet, because it zooms in on what I think is a structural flaw in the American governance model: America is lacking a national strategy policy.
American governance has no tradition or statute for the creation of a binding strategic plan that is built on broad consensus and transcends the shifting balance of power between the Republican and Democratic parties. How much sense would it make if there was a constitutional requirement on the president and the leadership in Congress to establish a national strategy, much like companies develop a strategic plan for their business that then becomes the compass by which investment decisions and other resource allocations are made? Such national plan should have a long time horizon, transcend the term limits imposed on politicians, and be formally reviewed from year to year to adjust for changes in the external environment.
What’s required is a clear articulation of some overarching bi-partisan national objectives and a popular buy-in of these objectives. America has not had a clearly articulated national objective since John F. Kennedy decided that America was to be the first nation to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely to earth. We can borrow a chapter out of the book of the Netherlands, my country of origin, which—after the flood of 1953—made it a national objective to protect its low laying areas from a 500 year flood.
Public policy in the USA is too much influenced by the perpetual election cycle. Big strategies take a long time to be developed and implemented and don’t fit in with the election-driven decision making practices of our politicians. In this respect a major difference comes to light between the public and the private sector in America. In business nothing survives without a solid strategic plan and careful, methodical implementation. In public life, politicians get slaughtered if they don’t cater to the immediate needs and fancies of their constituents.
But, without a long term plan there is no expected outcome and it is, therefore, not surprising that we are beginning to hear voices calling for an overarching national strategy. The articulation of such strategy is the role and responsibility of the federal government. Note that recent administrations have declared “war” on a number of national challenges—like the war on poverty, the war on drugs and the war on terror—but they have not bothered to rally the nation behind any particular national objective. Can we think of any highly worthwhile broad national objectives? I would suggest that the following would make a good place to start:
1. Wellness and productivity: Creating the conditions and environment whereby most, if not all, of our residents can lead healthy lives for at least 95 percent of a lengthening lifespan and productive lives for at least 75 percent of the same lifespan.
2. Response to climate change: Determine the positives of climate change and take steps to capitalize on them like with a comprehensive Arctic strategy; and defense against the negatives of climate change by protecting people and property from its adverse consequences.
Having a clearly defined national strategy would not be a panacea for all that ails our governance model, but it would break through the logjam of partisan stalemate by forcing bipartisan support for and popular unity behind an ambitious and meaningful path forward for the nation that is now drifting without a clear sense of direction.