Discussion needed at all levels of government about how to govern: Part 1

Occasionally someone will ask, “Can’t we all just get along?” It’s not about getting along, it’s about finding a way to govern that fosters the stability needed for people, families and businesses of all types to make good decisions.

I was recently asked to write a case study for a program that some of my Michigan State University Extension colleagues and I deliver. It occurred to me that the battles in Washington are a result of problems with which governing boards at many levels wrestle. It is becoming increasingly unclear how much of the battle is about sincerely held values and beliefs and the translation of those beliefs into policy, all of which is an appropriate part of the governing process; and how much is the result of pure gamesmanship, a lack of respect and an unhealthy level of “I will beat you” whatever the cost. We need less of the debate about which side is more to blame and more energy invested in solving the problem.

These themes also occur in city/state/township/county/village/school/tribal/special authority government. All governments, and all members of governing bodies (including non-profits, churches, etc.) continually wrestle with decisions about which issues are absolute, and which are okay to compromise on. The struggle begins with, “how far do I go fighting for my values before I compromise, and how far am I willing to compromise?” “Where is that line that puts me in a position that is so hard to step back from?” How do we build relationships in politics that allow us to disagree, agreeably?

I’ve been told that the Michigan Legislature, in the days before term limits, was a more congenial place. One of the reasons given for this was that legislators stayed in Lansing from late Monday or early Tuesday through the end of the session on Thursday, then went home for the weekend and meetings with constituents in their districts. This meant they often had dinner together in a handful of restaurants downtown, sharing stories of their families back home with legislators from both parties. They knew they might be working together at this legislative business for many years, and knew they had to build some trust, both ways, in order to get things accomplished. The person who told me this had concluded that term limits, contrary to the prevailing mindset when they were enacted, actually contribute to the problems of ineffective governance.

In part two, we will pose some questions for both boards and individual members, to help you begin thinking about ways to replace the verbal artillery with discussion aimed at crafting effective solutions that meet the needs of your constituents.

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