I am old enough to remember when President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, agreed in 1983 on a fix to Social Security that dramatically improved the program’s long-term financial outlook. The result, the Social Security Reform Act of 1983, involved a combination of benefit and contribution policy changes that either side could have used to bludgeon the other in the upcoming elections. But by putting their personal political capital on the line, the two men took the cudgel away from the partisans. No one said a darn thing. And it worked.
I have thought often of that compromise. They looked at the facts of the problem, compromised, and got it done. The idea that one party, one institution, or one ideology has all the best answers is ludicrous and, worse, small-minded. It brings to mind the words of President John F. Kennedy: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” These days, such a political investment by both parties at the national level is exceedingly rare.
It’s critically important that, in spite of our current political climate, the government continues to get things done to benefit the people. The ability to do so — at the federal, state, or local level — builds trust from constituents. Failure breeds mistrust, which can undermine their belief in our institutions and present challenges for democracy itself.
The pandemic has brought all this into sharp focus. COVID, to put it bluntly, caught us unprepared. True, the government is pretty good at responding to one-off natural disasters (winter storms, floods) and manmade disasters (transportation accidents, power outages). We had heard warnings of potential calamitous threats and emergencies, but our agencies had limited plans in place.
Why were our public-sector operations so underprepared? That question will be debated by people who are a lot smarter than me and who will, I hope, offer up ways to improve our readiness and our response. But one thing is for certain: making sure that we are better prepared next time, and able to address the critical issues we will face in the meantime, will require us to take a page from the Reagan-O’Neill playbook.
The good news is that this kind of investment is not impossible. The short-term shared purpose around Operation Warp Speed, which produced effective vaccines to battle COVID in an incredibly short time, is a wonderful example of government leaders crossing party lines to make a seismic strategic difference in a time of emergency.
Similarly, the federal funding available to state and local governments through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 creates an opportunity to make transformational, once-in-a-lifetime changes in housing, community building, education, environmental policy, and equity. But for now, it is only an opportunity. The product of all this possibility will be determined by what leaders choose to do with that funding, why they choose what they choose, and, perhaps most important, how they actually get it done.
Performance is about results, not in the abstract but in how individuals, families, businesses, and other entities experience those results. Good government services are not just what we should expect; they are necessary to nurture and protect our democracy. Faulty services are not just frustrating; they are undermining. When we deliver results and report them honestly to constituents, we build trust in government and public institutions. When we fail, we hurt ourselves and the people we seek to serve, and undermine their belief in the institutions we represent.
Democracy is imperfect, and it’s messy. It involves the kind of intense engagement among people that most of us would never want to see at our own kitchen table, much less day after day in the media. Combine that with the inescapable 24-hour news cycle that needs clicks to survive, the partisan organizations and social media platforms that use anger and outrage to feed their own growth, and the never-ending stories about how the government overpromises and underperforms. You end up with a toxic brew that breeds factionalism, cynicism, and mistrust.
I’ve said before that I grew up with a mom who was a Democrat and a dad who, at 93 and counting, is a Republican. They were happily married for more than 60 years, took care of each other when they needed to, and showed their friends and their children what it meant to be completely and totally committed to someone else. They also almost never voted for the same person, and the debates around our dinner table were legendary among my friends. But they didn’t debate character or motive. They debated means — how to best help someone.
The lesson I learned from watching them go at it was simple: the public square has plenty of opinions about how to help people and solve problems. Hear them all. Insight and knowledge come from curiosity and humility. Snap judgments, about people or ideas, are fueled by arrogance and conceit. They create blind spots and missed opportunities. Some ideas are more achievable than others, some cannot be acted on at all, and some can be executed only with the help of spectacularly talented people, a lot of money, and a ton of time. Too often, the how gets lost. Around our dinner table, that was always part of the discussion: “How are you going to do that?”
For leaders, answering that question — and doing the right things with our resources — will go a long way toward building faith in government with our constituents, by showing them that we can do big things and do them well.
Charlie Baker is the governor of Massachusetts. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from “RESULTS: Getting Beyond Politics to Get Important Work Done” by Charlie Baker and Steve Kadish. Copyright 2022 Charles D. Baker and Steven N. Kadish. All rights reserved.