Stop Burning Bridges

As we all watch our dysfunctional Congress fail to carry out its most basic duty of passing a budget year after year, and we see divisive political battles in states like Wisconsin, where police arrest peacefully singing protestors resulting in the filing of 15,000 complaints against the Capitol police, it is worth considering whether both sides of the political aisle’s current strategy of vilifying each other achieves the goals they seek. Cynics who believe that politics is all about power and has little to with actual policy may believe that burning bridges with the other side is the best way to fire up their loyal troops.

But for those who seek genuine, long-term systemic change to improve our society, whether on a local, state or national level, burning bridges through name-calling, personal insults and other forms of vilification, will at best, provide short-term emotional satisfaction, and short-term political victories.  Perhaps the worst case example of name calling is through comparing politicians to Hitler or Nazis.  Remarkably, this unfortunate pattern exists on both sides of the aisle, with the left making absurd comparisons between President George W. Bush and Hitler, and the right using the same vilification against President Obama.

Long term systems change happens when society at large believes it should happen and politicians are convinced that blocking such change will result in their loss of power.  Indeed, the opposite is also true.  Do those who invoke the ultimate Hitler insult against a sitting President, or any other politician in power, actually believe that they can work with supporters of the sitting President effectively?  In addition to the fact that such absurd comparisons insult the memories of the millions slaughtered by Hitler, they also ensure that partisan sniping continues and substantive progress on policy grinds to a halt.

For too many, when they disagree with whomever is in power at the time, they believe that they must oppose all that they stand for and use whatever arguments and tactics, no matter how absurd, to oppose that political leader.  For all the appropriate opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s attacks on public employee unions, suggesting a comparison to Hitler is not only absurd, but makes it impossible to work with him and his allies.

Thus, in my own work, I have spent my entire career working with politicians on both sides of the aisle.  I have avoided joining any political parties, which has eased my ability to work with whomever is in power. While I certainly agree with some political leaders more than others, and vote for those whose policies I support, I studiously avoid personal attacks and seek to find common ground with whomever is in power while avoiding burning bridges with those out of power.  The simple truth is that power is always transitory and good advocates know that they always want to be able to influence those in power.

So what should an advocate do when faced with political leadership that generally stands for views the advocate opposes?  

  • First, by all means, the advocate should clearly state opposing views, but those views should be articulated intelligently and respectfully, without burning bridges.
  • Second, seek common ground on issues that the advocate and the political leadership both support.  For example, along with many other advocates, I was able to work with both Republican and Democratic leadership during the highly divisive 2011-12 legislative session and obtain Gov. Walker’s signature on Act 125, which passed the legislature unanimously and now protects Wisconsin school children from inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.

This picture shows how advocates who refuse to burn bridges can work with both sides of the aisle for the common good as the bill’s lead sponsors Democratic Sen. Julie Lassa and Republican Sen. Luther Olsen join me and other advocates to applaud Gov. Walker as he signed Act 125 into law to protect vulnerable children.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.


Procrastination Nation

As our nation and the entire world breathes a collective sigh of relief that the United States will not default on its debts for the moment, one must wonder if the world’s only superpower, has earned a new moniker, Procrastination Nation. 

The dictionary definition of procrastination is:

To postpone or delay needlessly.

As James Surowiecki wrote in his article aptly entitled, Later, a few years ago in the New Yorker,

the percentage of people who admitted to difficulties with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002. In that light, it’s possible to see procrastination as the quintessential modern problem.

The question is whether our federal government should be modeling such behavior when it is so remarkably unproductive.  Indeed, Surowiecki goes on to point out that,

Each year, Americans waste hundreds of millions of dollars because they don’t file their taxes on time. The Harvard economist David Laibson has shown that American workers have forgone huge amounts of money in matching 401(k) contributions because they never got around to signing up for a retirement plan. Seventy per cent of patients suffering from glaucoma risk blindness because they don’t use their eyedrops regularly. Procrastination also inflicts major costs on businesses and governments.

Indeed, this current federal shutdown has cost the nation billions and its full cost has not been totaled yet.  As the New York Times reports,

The two-week shutdown has trimmed about 0.3 percentage point from fourth-quarter growth, or about $12 billion, the forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers, based in St. Louis, recently estimated. Standard & Poor’s is more pessimistic, estimating that the shutdown will cut about 0.6 percent off inflation-adjusted gross domestic product, equivalent to $24 billion.

It would be one thing if the current Congressional dysfunction was a one-time rare occurrence, but sadly it has become a pattern of procrastination causing long-term economic harm, in addition to loss of standing in the world.  A new report, The Cost of Crisis-Driven Fiscal Policy.  This report concludes that,

Since late 2009, fiscal policy uncertainty has…lowered GDP growth by 0.3 percentage points per year, and raised the unemployment rate in 2013 by 0.6 percentage points, equivalent to 900,000 lost jobs.

Very few good decisions are made by panic.  As a nation we can do better. We must do better unless we want the whole world to just consider us the, Procrastination Nation.  


Rather than continue this Great Dysfunction, our nation needs:

  • Real statesmen who are genuinely want to govern for the common good, not just pressmen seeking to take temporary advantage of the next sound bite;
  • Consensus Driven Leadership instead of a divide and conquer mentality; and
  • The collective will to Get to Yes, rather than constant bickering and fighting.

It is clearly easier said than done, but voters must demand it, or our nation will continue to suffer the ignominy of being known as a second rate Procrastination Nation.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Pressmanship: The Opposite of Statesmanship

As our nation watches our federal government sputter to a halt with the rest of the world wondering whether we will risk the world’s economic health for the purpose of scoring political victories, I continue to lament the lack of statesmanship, which is so very hard to find these days, as I wrote about previously.  Indeed, every day, regular Americans are impacted by the Congress’ failure to pass a budget.  Whether it is closure of local VA offices, the inability of farmers to get the information they need to make important planting and harvesting decisions, or the myriad of other large & small impacts both here and abroad, perhaps the biggest impact is the worldwide loss of respect for our nation’s ability to govern itself.

While the pundits and politicians continue to cast barbs at each other, I have been searching for the word that would best define the current paralysis plaguing our federal government.  I have been searching for the word that is the opposite of statesmanship. Remarkably, the English language does not have a word that is a true antonym for statesmanship.

Some have claimed that the Founding Fathers set up our government of checks & balances knowing that there would be conflict, thereby reducing the chances of a temporary Congressional majority or a demagogue of a President ruling by fiat.  However, as James Madison stated quite clearly in Federalist Paper # 10, entitled, The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection, 

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.

Madison also lamented about statesmen:

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.

But he certainly did not envision a Congress that was prepared to violate the Constitutional requirement to pay its debts!

My search for the opposite of statesmanship finally bore fruit in an article from the London Times from 1852, entitled, Pressmanship and Statesmanship.  While the article may be somewhat outdated for the 21st century, the word pressmanship seems to be what our federal leaders are engaged in: battling for sound bites in the press to gain political advantage, rather than acting as statesmen in the national interest.


For our nation’s sake, we can only hope that our nation’s leaders will start acting more like statesmen then pressmen.  If not, perhaps the voters will elect more statesmen in the 2014 elections and boot out the pressmen so the storm clouds can lift and the sun can shine on our nation’s Capitol.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Why Small Local Government Matters

One of the many hats I wear is that of Chairperson of the Goose Lake Watershed District (GLWD).  The GLWD is a small governmental body which has 5 members, 3 of whom are elected by the 157 property owners in the watershed district, 1 is appointed by the Town of Jackson, and one is appointed by Adams County.  We have the power of taxation and those taxes bring in about $18,000/year.  Those funds are used for the care and maintenance of Goose Lake, including combating invasive species, weed control, aeration, and beach maintenance.

The GLWD was formed about 4 years ago when it became clear that neither voluntary efforts nor other, larger governmental units, were maintaining the necessary environmental quality of Goose Lake.  Last summer, after watching the GLWD’s initial success, I decided to put my hat in the ring when a vacancy opened up, and I was unanimously elected Chair at the annual meeting.

The GLWD operates remarkably free of partisan politics, as we all have the same goal in mind, improving the quality of Goose Lake for all to enjoy.  One of our biggest challenges involves how to deal with the privately owned Gilligan’s Island which has a deteriorating boardwalk and bridge leading from the mainland to the island.  It presents unique challenges because there are 17 co-owners of the island and it cannot be sold without all owners agreeing to its sale.

To deal with this challenge, the GLWD sent a survey to the island owners and discovered that they were also frustrated by the island’s deteriorating condition.  After the survey results were in, the GLWD invited the island owners to a meeting to discuss how the GLWD could potentially buy the island and fix or remove the deteriorating boardwalk and bridge.  While this process is far from concluded, these initial cooperative steps show promising signs as we agreed to put together a committee to develop a plan to improve the island.

At its last meeting, after much investigation, the GLWD also signed a contract to buy a used lake weed cutter, which over time will allow us to maintain the lake in better condition for less money.

While the GLWD is strictly non-partisan, it does not mean that it does not express its views to the Wisconsin legislature.  Earlier in the Wisconsin state budget process, we wrote our legislators and sought restoration of state funds for lake conservation staff. Our State Senator, Luther Olsen, sits on the Joint Finance (budget) committee, and agreed with our position, and successfully restored that funding.

At our last meeting, we agreed to write Gov. Scott Walker to request that he veto the policy provision which is in the budget recently passed by the legislature that eliminates the right of citizens and Lake Districts such as GLWD to challenge high capacity well permits.  I just sent that letter to Governor Walker and I hope it influences his decision in favor of vetoing this non-budgetary anti-environmental provision.

The GLWD is an excellent example of how a few dedicated citizens can have an important impact at the local level.  Policymakers would be wise to support the success of local governmental units, rather than limiting their ability to succeed through unnecessary restrictions.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Size of Government: We’re asking the Wrong Question

Since the Reagan revolution in 1980, Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in a never ending war over the size of government, with Democrats espousing a generally larger role for government in our lives, and Republicans generally supporting a smaller role for government in our lives.  Sadly, however, this is one case where the aphorism, “size matters,” is simply unhelpful.

I previously posted, The Fallacy in Government Budgeting, which asked,

Why is there a complete lack of budgeting analysis about how much it costs to achieve the clearly identified state and federal education standards that are written into law?

Thus, the right question is not about the size of government, or even any particular line item in the budget.

The right question is whether or not government is providing a valuable service with taxpayers’ hard earned money.

In fact, President Obama correctly framed this question in his first inaugural address when he stated:

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”

A microeconomics analogy is worth consideration here.  When most people make a purchase, while they hopefully consider whether or not they can afford the purchase, their most important consideration is whether the price they are paying for the product or service provides a good value.  That is why we tend to buy the larger package because we pay less per ounce for the larger volume, i.e., we get a better value for the bulk purchase.

When it comes to government budgets, most taxpayers recognize that in order to live in a civilized society, government must take care of certain collective responsibilities, including transportation infrastructure, public health, national defense, police and fire protection, and the education of our children.  In general, when the public is satisfied with government service, most people do not mind paying taxes to support valuable government services.

This is exactly why, though a majority of Americans are concerned with the federal deficit, a majority do not want to reduce government spending.  In fact, a majority of Americans want to increase spending on Education, Public Schools and Veterans Benefits.  Indeed, contrary to what media pundits might have us believe, there is not a single category of the federal budget regarding which a majority of Americans want to see reduced spending.  In fact, a plurality of Americans want to see level or increased spending in every area of the federal budget except foreign aid.

There are two key components to changing the conversation.  First, government and those who support its helpful role in our lives, must do a better job informing the public of the valuable services it provides, as too many people simply take our roads, police, schools and the myriad of other government services which benefit all of us, for granted.

But mere pro-government advertising is not enough.  Those who support the role of government in our lives must also acknowledge, that like any large organization, there is always room for improvement.  Government must constantly strive to improve the way it functions and let the public know that it is doing so.

After the Katrina FEMA fiasco, the Obama Administration was committed to improving critical FEMA services, as stated by, Carlos Dávila, director of Business Management Division, FEMA Recovery Directorate,

“You have to question everything—not from a cynical standpoint but a critical thinking standpoint.  Agencies need to have folks with passion.”

A recent report appropriately suggests that,

It is fitting that agencies take stock of their priorities and activities, identify opportunities to improve how they deliver results, and use analytics to demonstrate they are meeting mission goals efficiently and could do so at less cost in the future.

It is ironic that since the Great Recession, despite the fact that the US bailed out financial institutions and automakers which were deemed too big to fail, we do not analyze government services in the same manner.  Can our society tolerate public schools that fail?  The answer should be a simple no we cannot allow our public schools to fail if we want to continue to live in a civilized society.  Yet, as I wrote in, The Great Dysfunction or Lessons in how Not to Govern, our Congress continues to act in a dysfunctional manner which further erodes public confidence in government.

So let’s start asking about the value of government services and insist that the value of those services constantly improves.  Perhaps then, we can stop asking the wrong question, because size alone does not matter.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

The Fallacy in Government Budgeting

For many years, advocates of streamlining government have suggested that government should operate like a business, using phrases like “government should not spend money that it does not have.”  While such phrases may sound appealing, these same business oriented advocates tend to pick and choose which parts of government they think should operate like a business to suit their policy goals, instead of actually applying sound business principles to all aspects of government.

At the state level, the most obvious example of the diametrically opposed methods of budgeting is how most states budget for roads versus how they budget for schools. Not only do most states budget as much road money as road builders request for both new projects and repairs, but specific projects are then put out to bid and states award the contracts based on the amount the road builders claim it will cost to perform the work requested.  This is how business typically works.  A business wants to buy a product or service.  It examines the cost, determines if it has the money, and pays the required cost if it has the money.  Some are so concerned about keeping road money sacrosanct that in Wisconsin, they are moving closer to a Constitutional Amendment to preserve the Transportation Fund from being used for anything other than transportation projects.

When budgeting for education, on the other hand, absolutely no serious consideration is given to how much it costs to educate children properly.  Rather, a pure political decision is made about how much money government is willing to spend on educating children, and then school districts are told to produce high achieving students without any consideration about whether the funding is sufficient to accomplish the desired goal.

Tonight, Governor Walker will announce a biennial budget proposal that calls for vastly increased per pupil funding for children in voucher schools vs. public schools.

The governor’s proposed budget would increase state aid to kindergarten-through-eighth-grade voucher schools in the 2014-’15 school year to $7,050 per pupil from $6,442, an increase of $608 per pupil, or 9.4%…Walker is also rejecting an increase in the state-imposed cap in revenues that public schools are allowed to raise from both the state and local property-tax payers. Before Walker’s tenure, the cap had gone up around $200-plus most years. Two years ago, Walker cut the cap by 5.5%, or about $550 per student.

Leaving aside the issue of the lack of any documented improved educational performance in voucher schools, the budgeting question is this: why is there a complete lack of budgeting analysis about how much it costs to achieve the clearly identified state and federal education standards that are written into law?

There is a method for doing this kind of education budgeting.  It is called, “Adequacy.”  The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) started promoting adequacy funding as far back as 2003.  However, even WAES stopped promoting it as it has failed to gain political traction.  In many states, the failure to adequately budget for successful educational outcomes has resulted in litigation, which has had mixed results.

An additional disparity between business based budgeting and both school and human services budgeting is that business would never appropriately refuse to raise revenue.  No business can survive without bringing in revenue.  Yet, ever since the Reagan taxpayer revolution, those who want to reduce spending on education and human services believe it appropriate to take the government revenue side of the equation off the table.  They should be challenged on business grounds, i.e., if they were running a business would they take revenue off the table?

Ultimately, whether in business or in government, if you want a good product that produces a good result, you have to pay an appropriate price for it.  If that means raising revenue, then raise it in a responsible manner as I described in my prior tax reform blog posts:

It is time to have honest business like budgeting when educating our children instead of using them as political pawns.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.