For a few weeks now I’ve had this word bouncing around in my head: consequential. It came up around the time of President Obama’s last State of the Union address, as the press gave him credit for being consequential. The word has stuck with me as one of many lenses for evaluating political debate and the capabilities of the (now shrinking) crop of presidential candidates. The world’s most powerful office, the American Presidency, comes with an implied freedom to accomplish things, but neither governance nor consequence are easy.
And to be clear, at all levels and in all branches of government we should be thinking about who is and who is not consequential. It’s not just a label for the Presidency. But how do we decide who fits the bill? What is the framework that allows us to evaluate a person or an institution that is supposed to be serving us?
I see it like this… if you hold elected office then you have a responsibility to do two things:
- Feed and optimize the institutions that do the people’s business.
- Achieve a measurable outcome for a particular constituency.
Number 1 is pretty dull, but it’s critical. Number 1 means funding and staffing and managing the agencies that serve the American people. It’s keeping the lights on and the doors open, for everything from the military to national parks to the drivers license office. Previous generations of citizens and public officials created these institutions. They need resources and attention to keep from withering away.
If you’re doing this job number 1, you also have a responsibility (an opportunity!) to optimize cost and performance and to root out the creeping inefficiencies that plague all large organizations. Does the job include cutting, reorganizing, shifting resources from one place to another? Of course. If you’re an elected official running an institution then you are in a leadership role, and leaders always need to seek ways to do more with less. If you’re a cost-cutter, a superb manager, a government-efficiency aficionado, maybe this part of the job appeals to you.
Now, if you understand and if you deliver on your responsibility number 1, then you get to work on responsibility number 2. Number 2 means advancing an agenda for some group that you represent. There was probably a message or a mission that you made the basis of your campaign for public office in the first place. You promised to do something, to deliver something, to make a difference in the lives of the people who elected you. Responsibility number 2 is your opportunity to deliver on that agenda.
BUT NOT SO FAST! Did you really fulfill responsibility number 1? Did you really keep the engine running, the machine churning, so the government continues to do the people’s business? Because if you didn’t, you didn’t earn the right to work on your own stuff, that agenda you’re trying to deliver for a particular slice of the American population. Have you let the government run out of money? Have you denied the government the ability to borrow? Have you lumped your agenda in with something unrelated and held that other thing hostage while you whine for what you want? YES? REALLY? OK then you have not fulfilled responsibility number 1, the most basic function of government and you have not earned the right to work on number 2. Perhaps you need a simple word to label the kind of selflessness and maturity that it takes to put responsibility number 1 ahead of responsibility number 2. Try this one: integrity.
Feeling good about number 1? Feeling like you did your duty? Great, let’s move on to number 2. If you want to provide something more or different or better to the people you represent, I support that. But I CALL FOUL if what you are “providing” merely takes away from or discriminates against another constituency that you don’t actively represent. Need some examples of this kind of ridiculousness?
- The Affordable Care Act ensures millions of people have access to affordable health insurance and are protected against medical bankruptcies. If you want to repeal the law, you need to have a replacement in mind to continue to protect those people. Otherwise you are just reinserting people into jeopardy to serve a political interest.
- Gay marriage is now legal in this country. If you propose changing that, you also propose invalidating one of the most fundamental legal constructs upon which Americans have built relationships, families, and wealth. To deny gay people the right to marry is to deny them the same legal construct that so many of your constituents already enjoy and depend upon. You should explain that to them. (Emphasize the “legal” part, since that’s what we’re talking about. It’s not about religion.)
- Abortion is a legal medical procedure and each woman in America is empowered to decide how that procedure aligns with her own values and family planning. If you propose outlawing abortion, you are really outlawing a woman’s right to choose and you should explain that to your female constituents. Let them know that you want to take their medical decisions out of their hands.
My position on governing to an outcome is really about operating and governing between two constraints or limits. One the one end, if you’re an elected official, there is a long list of things you MUST do to keep the government functioning. Do those things. If you’re not too busy outside of those tasks, then you get to work on your own agenda but you will be constrained at the other end. That is, your agenda needs to be more sophisticated and more empathetic than to simply undo the progress that has already been made and the security that has already been delivered for millions of Americans. Don’t tear down what others have achieved just to appease the fears of the people you represent. You need to deliver something, achieve something, change people’s lives for the better.
That’s how you govern to an outcome. That’s how you be consequential.