I Think I Can, I Think I Can…
By Jim Kuiken
Lots of interesting things in the news lately – if politics and government are interesting to you. The presidential election cycle is in full swing, and coming down to the wire pretty soon. That’s politics.
As I’ve mentioned before, politics is one thing, but government is completely different. If you want a little background on politics (i.e., if you’re not already saturated with the constant media drumbeat), you can see my previous articles ‘Let’s Talk Politics’ and ‘Inside a Political Campaign’ for an insider’s view.
Think of politics as sales, and government as business. Not all salesmen make good bosses or CEOs, and vice versa. I’ll tell you what I look for – as someone who has been involved in politics and in government (and sales and business…). What I don’t like are unethical (disingenuous at best, and slimy at worst) salesmen.
I watch out for those who spout bombastic self-serving blathering – constantly boasting or saying outrageous sound-bites that have no substance, but stir up base instinct and emotions. I watch out for those who incompetently blunder through life, and especially crisis situations, and then blame others, don’t admit their own short-comings, and then lie about it (and even lie about lying). I watch out for pie-in-the-sky promises, with no possible way to pay for or fulfil those promises… I watch out for those who seem to always be in the center of controversy involving dirty tricks or who say whatever it is that whoever they are talking to at the time want to hear, regardless of any contradictions to what they espoused before, and who disavow knowledge of or control over those events.
All those traits show me an unethical (at best) salesman / politician, and do not show me any real capacity to be a servant-leader, someone who thinks about their employees or constituents, and who constantly strives to make other’s lives better. Someone who is truly a servant of the people they represent, and not interested in self-aggrandizement or titles.
Ok Kuiken, get off your soap-box. Back to the question - what makes government work?
As with a lot of my articles, I’m not talking about big picture strategic philosophies or the overall structure of our national government. I’m talking about boots-on-the ground, sleeves rolled up (and not just for a photo), down in the dirt workings of government.
Everyone knows the three branches of our government. The adversarial system set up to make sure all sides of any argument are heard. Laws that have to be passed. Rules and Regulations that are used to implement those laws. And the working end of the law? Policy.
Policy is the grease in the wheels of government. How you do what the Laws say you must or must not do, and follow the Regulations and Rules that are set up as guidelines to implement those laws…and the Policy that tells government and all its agencies how to actually do what it is they have been charged with doing.
When I got promoted out of the field where I was a Supervisory Special Agent, and sent to Headquarters in Washington DC, my first job was as a policy writer for the enforcement branch of the service – which included all the agencies that were within the operations branch of the service. I became a “policy wonk”.
Not only did I write and oversee policy, but I also wrote portions of various proposed bills, some of which were incorporated into bills on the Hill that eventually became law…which then flowed back down to us…and I had to write policy to guide the service in enforcing or complying with those laws.
When I was doing that, I would call together working groups of the field-level folks who would be bound by those policies, and had them help develop those very policies. One of them asked me one time “Jim, are we doing any good? Are any of these policies actually going to improve anything, or are they just more ‘government’ regulations?”
As someone who had spent most of my career in the field, I knew the frustration of the constant flow of policies from Washington DC… I kept that in my mind as I worked to make policy very concise, and to remove all the extraneous rules and regulations so the agents could actually be effective in serving and protecting the law-abiding public.
I explained it this way. Think of a large oil tanker or cargo ship (full of all those containers / laws / agendas) coming into harbor. They slow way down and basically drift in under their own inertia. You’ll see a small little tug boat with its nose against the front of that big ship, pushing as hard as it can with the water boiling up behind it…and absolutely nothing happening. The ship continues to drift under its own momentum.
But if you watch long enough, you will see that big ship begin to slowly change direction, from the constant pressure of that almost insignificant little tug boat at full throttle, pushing. That’s policy. If you expect to ride into DC on a big white horse and save the day – go write comic books. If you come to work hard and keep the pressure up to improve the lives of everyday people…expect to see no measurable immediate effect…what you are up against is just too big and has too much inertia. But keep pushing. Maybe you can even join forces with a couple of other tug boats, and have enough effect to make a difference.
Yes, government is ponderous and overgrown, but policy can have an effect. As can laws…and good governance. Look past the politicians and campaigns…and find good candidates that will actually be good governors. Servant-Leaders.