Turning the page: the fundamentals of better government

After countless campaign stops, thousands of shaken hands and hundreds of speeches in venues large and small, the finish line is in sight. US Election Day, in all its democratic magnificence, is almost upon us. It’s fair to say that it’s not just Americans who are interested. Whoever sits behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office matters for all of us, wherever we are in the world. But, to echo a fictional president, the question is “What’s next?”

Both candidates have their own competing visions for the future. But whether they involve constructing a wall on the Mexican border or increasing the federal minimum wage, the journey from drawing board to delivery rarely runs smooth. In the US, this process is made all the more challenging due to the transition between administrations. Now this is a system guaranteed to prompt some surprise from foreign observers.

There are just 73 days between the election and inauguration: 73 days to recruit more than 4,000 senior personnel and get them primed to hit the ground running come January. It’s a system unique to the US and one that is hardly ideal for any country, let alone one the size and complexity of the US. But while the process is pockmarked with potential pitfalls, the vision of a government of the people, for the people and by the people remains a permanent North Star for all involved.

Time to pick up performance

Unfortunately, it would appear that despite the best efforts of the current and past administrations – and notwithstanding President Obama’s rising approval ratings – the US populace appears to be less than enamoured of its government. According to the Pew Research Center, only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).

For someone like me, who has had the good fortune to work alongside many hardworking, talented and patriotic American policymakers and who also believes that government has an almost limitless potential for good, it makes for somewhat dispiriting reading. This trend, however, is by no means limited to US borders – governments around the world are struggling with similar levels of discontent – only 40% of citizens in OECD countries trust their government, according to recent Gallup research.

The reasons for these results are varied. The media’s frequently unflattering portrayal of government; the transformational impact of demographic changes and megatrends like urbanisation and climate change; financial resources remaining stretched – the list goes on. In the US, you can add to this the partisan gridlock that can all too often act as a barrier to progress within the Beltway – the days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill’s post-work drinks appear long gone – as well as the sheer frequency of campaigns and elections. Members of Congress, in particular, rarely have time to savour their election victory before having to return to the grind of fundraising and whistle stops in preparation for their next joust at the ballot box. The actual business of government can often take a back seat.

So, what can be done to improve performance?

Introducing the Public Impact Fundamentals

The Centre for Public Impact recently unveiled a new tool to help governments turn ideas into improved outcomes for citizens. Underpinned by cutting-edge thinking from academia and tested by government officials so that it can be immediately usable, the Public Impact Fundamentals are underpinned by three areas of focus for effective policy: Legitimacy, Policy and Action. Legitimacy – the underlying support for a policy and the attempts to achieve it; Policy – the design quality of policies intended to achieve impact; and Action – the translation of policies into real-world effect.

It is clear that the incoming President will need to address some profound challenges against each of the Fundamentals. Whoever wins, the Legitimacy of the US democratic process has been challenged like never before during this campaign, and it will take time and energy to rebuild trust on all sides. The quality of the Policy discussions during the campaign has also been widely criticised, leading to the conclusion that many proposals have not been thoroughly tested in public debate. Finally, with gridlock on the Hill and a reliance on individual states to enact most legislation, turning ideas into Action can prove near impossible – as President Obama has found out in issues ranging from gun control to climate change.

We have also pulled together more than 200 stories of public impact, all of which can be found in our Public Impact Observatory, free to use and available on our website. The Observatory showcases hundreds of examples of public policy succeeding or failing, drawing out the key lessons for future policy work. Each study outlines the challenge that a public body sought to address, along with its objectives, methodology and impact, and are measured against the Fundamentals.

Both the Fundamentals and the Observatory are intended to help guide policymakers – not only in the US but around the world – towards the promise and glory of better times ahead. The US, which is so deeply rooted in the words and deeds of its founders, requires no full-scale transformation but instead a more subtle recognition that outcomes – citizen outcomes – matter.

Amidst the tumult of recruiting 4,000 new personnel and gearing up a massive, new and complex governmental machine, it is crucial that the next President – whoever he or she may be – underpins the goals and activities of their transition and administration with the foundation stones of Legitimacy, Policy and Action. Should they do so, their chances of improved results for citizens – not to mention re-election four years hence – will be significantly boosted.

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