In recent news cycles that only seem to be bad, the August 2022 release of The Economist/YouGov poll showing 43% of Americans believe a civil war is at least somewhat likely is alarming. This frightening escalation in negative sentiment is dangerous for our country and, in a sense, demonstrates that a large part of the American population is already conditioned to accept civil war as a future reality. Of course, experts in this area are not surprised. Earlier in the year, University of California, San Diego, Professor Barbara Walter published her book “How Civil Wars Start” which notes that recently, the US Polity Index—a measure that places countries on a scale from fully autocratic (-10) to fully democratic (+10)—plunged to levels that haven’t been seen since our country’s founding.
While we think civil war is unlikely, there are clearly problems that have been worsening for the past few decades. In the same The Economist/YouGov poll, nearly half the respondents noted they believe the US has become even more politically polarized since the beginning of 2021, and they are right. In fact, Pew Trust research shows this trend in play for decades. And the issue is made worse by an increasing number of “trifecta” states in which one party controls the governorship as well as both legislative chambers. Often, these states are unchecked in their ability to enshrine extreme policies that do not reflect the views of most constituents.
Polarity has been increasing while our overall trust in government declines, with only about two-in-ten Americans saying they trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (2%) or “most of the time” (19%). While “doing what’s right” has a moral component, the underlying issue is that constituents do not believe the government can manage itself effectively. Indeed, trends focusing on government breakdowns tend to reinforce this belief. Researcher Paul C. Light has been tracking major government breakdowns for nearly 40 years and despite the attempts of many federal administrations to improve the government, breakdowns have been increasing with each successive president.
These breakdowns reinforce, and perpetuate, what people sense as failures at all levels of government; rising inequality, opioid epidemics, chronic homelessness, gang violence, police brutality, and crumbling infrastructure are dominant news in our communities. Whether or not entirely true, people view these issues as getting worse and their reflection is that the government is ineffective in solving them. At the same time, we witness the government spending extraordinary amounts at all levels with little to show except partisan applause.
Farsighted business management guru, Peter Drucker, analyzed government “disenchantment” over 50 years ago in a paper published in the Winter 1969 issue of Public Interest. The urgent need, he wrote, is “the clear definition of the results a policy is expected to produce, and the ruthless examination of results against these expectations. This, in turn, demands that we spell out in considerable detail what results are expected rather than content ourselves with promises and manifestos.” Disenchantment can only be overcome by achieving results.
Achieving tangible results for constituents is the path to restoring trust in government. Metrics for crime, health, homelessness, infrastructural integrity, economic stability, fiscal soundness, and others must form the basis of communication between constituents and their governments. Maintaining and improving these metrics, all in the name of community well-being, is what we mean by government effectiveness.
Effectiveness in government requires the interworking of three components. First, the electorate must set the priorities by voicing their issues and demanding objective improvements. This will be different for different levels of government and for different constituencies. The second component, of course, are the elected officials and policymakers who direct resources to solve their constituents’ problems. These individuals must be deft enough and wise enough to understand and prioritize the feedback of their communities to accurately direct these resources. The third and final component is the civil service structure in place to accept these resources and utilize them in a way that solves the problems for their communities. These government bureaucracies have been granted increasing authority over the years and must work to fulfill greater expectations for objective results. Effectiveness in government requires a successful interplay between these three groups, and, when it works well, improves and maintains the well-being of citizens.
The glue here is the information, the metrics, that tell us, if we are, in fact, making objective improvements and maintaining good performance. In most cases, at all levels of government, this information is lacking. Elected leaders often point to what has been spent or what legislation has been passed without regard for what has been achieved. But spending is not achieving, and the civil service structure should have adequate reporting in place for independent verification. Constituents should be conditioned to expect this information and use this reporting as a routine part of their political participation.
While easy to articulate, improving government effectiveness is not an easy task. Partially built up from previous neglect or ineptitude and partially due to rapidly changing events, the broad range of issues facing every level of government are monumental. The rise in polarity, lack of governmental trust, and headline-grabbing breakdowns in government have many doubting whether liberal democracy possesses the tools to solve problems for constituents. For some, it leads to foolish admiration for an “illiberal” democracy and authoritarian rulers. Doubters over a century ago held similar beliefs toward fascism in Germany and communism in the Soviet Union.
In his recent book, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Professor Alasdair Roberts asks the scholars of public administration to “rebuild the capacity to address grand challenges.” Indeed the electorate, elected officials, and government bureaucracies must work in sync to accept this imperative and achieve results for their communities. Consistent and persistent demonstration of government effectiveness is the path to restoring faith in our democracy.
- “Two in Five Americans Say a Civil War Is at Least Somewhat Likely in the next Decade | YouGov.” https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2022/08/26/two-in-five-americans-civil-war-somewhat-likely accessed 8/30/22.
- Walter, Barbara F. How Civil Wars Start (New York: Crown, 2022), 135.
- Desilver, Drew “The Polarization in Today’s Congress Has Roots That Go Back Decades.” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/03/10/the-polarization-in-todays-congress-has-roots-that-go-back-decades/ accessed 9/1/22.
- “American Policy Is Splitting, State by State, into Two Blocs.” The Economist (September 3, 2022).
- “Public Trust in Government. Public Trust in Government: 1958–2022.” https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/06/06/public-trust-in-government-1958-2022/ accessed 8/6/22.
- Light, Paul C. “What Americans Still Want from Government Reform—a Midsummer Update.” https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2022/07/20/what-americans-still-want-from-government-reform-a-midsummer-update/ accessed 8/22/22.
- Drucker, Peter “The Sickness of Government.” https://www.nationalaffairs.com/public_interest/detail/the-sickness-of-government accessed 9/5/22.
- Roberts, A. Strategies for Governing: Reinventing Public Administration for a Dangerous Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020), Kindle Edition Location, 2548.