The Intrinsic Value of a Dysfunctional Government

Management Lessons Business Leaders Can Learn from Deliberative Government

Even the most casual observer of contemporary U.S. government would have to conclude that our government is downright dysfunctional. Issues large and small become bogged down in trivia and procedure. Legislative activity often seems to be more bane than blessing. But rather than look for someone to blame, I’d say, “hooray.”

It is natural to assume that this inability of government to function effectively is the result of a political disease that has infected government and impaired its ability to act. And, that would be wrong. There is also the belief that we are suffering from a new phenomenon caused by the times we live in with 24-hour politically tilted cable news, special interest groups, blogs galore and dump truck loads of political contributions, all attempting to influence the actions of government. And, that also would be wrong.

How Things Really Work

What we are witnessing is exactly the way our government was intended to function and, for the most part, has since the U.S.Constitution was ratified in 1788. Much to their credit and our benefit, the framers of the constitution specifically and intentionally created a government designed to be “dysfunctional.” That is to say, a government that is prevented from operating like a well-oiled machine that stamps out  legislation with the ease of a congressional cookie cutter.

Those who drafted our constitution rightly feared such an efficient and effective government, because they knew this opened the door to tyranny and loss of freedom. And they had painful, firsthand knowledge of such a government.

As a result, with few exceptions, every major decision or issue faced by our government in the past 225 years has been resolved in a dysfunctional manner, often taking years or even decades to resolve, all because our system required that all sides of an issue should be heard. That’s the inherent beauty of our constitution: Decisions are made only after careful and thoughtful deliberation—not by imperial edict. It may not be pretty. It can be messy. But it works as intended to protect our freedoms.

What Happens When Legislative Scrutiny is Diminished

Most of the poor (and dangerous) decisions that have been made by our government came at a time when one party had overwhelming control of government, giving them the efficiency of legislative clout to implement their plans with almost unfettered impunity. One classic example of this was the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, when the Federalists under John Adams were in virtual control of the government. Among other things, these laws made it illegal to even criticize the government. That may seem laughable to think such acts could be passed today; and they can’t—so long as the government remains dysfunctional and deliberative.

That’s not to say, however, there is a no difference between deliberation and obstruction. Our government was designed for deliberation, but it can fall prey to obstructionism. Deliberation gives time for passions to cool, options to be considered and reason to prevail. As American statesman and Senator Henry Clay once said, “Time is always reason’s greatest ally.” Obstructionism in government is simply an unethical effort to prevent action based upon political, personal or economic interests. Obstructionism most often results in no action to resolve an issue or, even worse, doing the wrong thing. While obstructionists have always played a role in our government, (i.e. Southern obstructionists prevented a resolution of slavery in America for over 50 years and resulted in the Civil War),  it does seem that we are cursed with more obstructionists than deliberators in government today.

A Few Contemporary Examples

The matter of health care reform has been debated and deliberated for decades, and has been the subject of several of my previous blogs. When it came time for action on this legislation, those opposed to any reform and unwilling to deliberate toward a reasonable solution, simply obstructed any proposal. The result was a confusing and convoluted bill that was forced through Congress by the controlling Democratic Party and president; a thoroughly unsatisfactory result for all concerned.

Another issue currently before the Senate also offers a good example of the value of deliberation. The issue in question is the ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). This treaty with Russia was negotiated by Republican President Bush and signed by Democratic President Obama in April.

There is now tremendous pressure being brought to bear by the Obama administration for the Senate to ratify the treaty. (I agree that it should be ratified.) However, one Senator, Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) has prevented the treaty from coming to a vote. Although being deemed an “obstructionist” by the Obama administration, Senator Kyl seems to be honestly forcing the Senate to fulfill its role to “deliberate” on the treaty before granting approval. The issues in the treaty are important and can impact the security of our country for decades. It is important to get it right, not just “git ‘er done.”

Senator Kyl has even indicated his desire to see the treaty ratified, but only after the appropriate discussion and understanding of the issues. This is dysfunctional government at its deliberative best. This type of action is understandably frustrating for those who want to rush the treaty through, but the framers of the constitution would be proud of Senator Kyl. It is how they intended for the system to work.

How does this serve as a lesson for those who wish to be strong and effective business leaders?

For reasons good and true, business is structured to be fast, efficient and able to  quickly respond to change. (Not that they always act that way!) The American corporate structure seeks efficiency and effectiveness by instilling the CEO (or even managers at any level) with virtually unlimited power to make decisions and implement policy. Recent failures and abuses by CEOs have shifted more power and oversight to the board of directors, but the real power still remains with the individual leader.

The corporate structure of power is as it should be, but the truly effective and successful leader will take a lesson from our government and be open to a form of dysfunctional decision-making by allowing honest input and deliberation on key issues. In fact, this structure works better at resolving and implementing decisions, because the leader has the power to ignore or eliminate those who are simply obstructionists. However, this is a power the leader should be careful to use, lest it inhibit honest and candid deliberation.

The ability and willingness of the business leader to seek collaborative deliberation on an issue (often referred to as “empowering” others) facing the business will more often lead to success, both for him/her as a leader and the organization.

And the Moral of the Story …

Sometimes dysfunction in government and business can be a good thing. It forces those in power to be open to deliberation, understand, explain and justify actions. This increases the chances of doing the right thing. In government this type “dysfunction” reduces the possibility of taking rash actions in an atmosphere of passion or political expediency. In business, allowing the dysfunction of deliberation allows the leader to test his beliefs against those of others and make better decisions.

If the business leader adopts the “dysfunctional” style of management like that embedded in the constitution, then maybe they will build an organization that can last 225 years, too.

One response to “The Intrinsic Value of a Dysfunctional Government

  1. Another clear-cut and informative column, Mr. MacDonald. It reminded me a lot of what Peter Drucker talked about in “The Effective Executive” (have you ever read it?). Drucker mentioned how Alfred Sloan would temporarily dismiss every meeting where everyone unanimously agreed. Sloan believed that it would ultimately be their disagreements that would help them find the best possible solution/policy. It’s too bad that most of the country’s best leaders stay out of government… But I guess that’s what also makes them some of the most successful and intelligent people in the country, too!

    I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

    – Ryan

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