One of the most pertinent questions in public policy today is, “Who are we, and what do we stand for?” You see it every day in competing claims and complaints advanced in the public arena. Does the American Natural Gas Alliance really stand for clean energy? Do labor unions really represent the best interests of American workers? Is President Obama, in the terms President Clinton once ascribed to hard-core conservatives, a “closet Socialist?”
The question is important because it goes to the heart of one’s credibility in politics. Can he/she/they be trusted to be who they say they are, deliver what they say they’re going to, and be accountable for their actions? Can we trust them to speak for us and represent our interests?
The answer to this question is often determined, not in isolation, but in interaction with others. How effectively did an organization which purports to serve the public interest represent our interests in that most recent negotiation? How, based on their record of recent accomplishments, do they seem to see themselves? Is there, in short, a policy framework –- a framework of connections –- within which they see their future bound up and define their identity?
The first purpose of a policy framework is to set a context for the discussion and resolution of issues. U.S. energy policy today is a good example of a patchwork of independent and uncoordinated actions which lacks an overall framework. How much more productive it could be if, instead of all going off in their separate ways, companies could come together on a coordinated climate policy that could harness the innovation and resources of the private sector in the service of what the market cannot do -- put a price on carbon pollution. Then, private enterprise could better serve its proper role of responding to society’s needs as defined by public policy, and not purely by market forces.
Another area in which a policy framework can be helpful in bringing actions into line with desired outcomes is in setting a policy direction. In 1981 President Reagan announced his “zero option” goal for removal of nuclear forces from Europe. At the same time, he signaled his intention to proceed with deployment of Pershing II Intermediate-range missiles to counter the new force of Soviet SS-20 missiles. Peace activists all over Europe denounced “zero option” as a smoke screen behind which to proceed with this Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) deployment. But Reagan, a closet idealist, knew where he was going. In what former NATO Ambassador David M. Abshire has called the “last battle of the Cold War,” he persisted against European public opinion until the Soviets caved. “Zero option” became a reality.
Being part of a larger framework also means being connected with oneself. When organizations lose sight of who they are and what their larger purposes are, they cannot see or seize opportunities that will enable them to adjust these purposes to changing realities. In the last decade the auto industry and the coal industry have both demonstrated this intransigence to changing circumstances which, in the first instance, almost led to the demise of the industry and, in the second, have rendered the industry powerless in the face of fuel switching to natural gas. The auto industry has now responded belatedly to the need for a new emphasis on fuel efficiency, which has restored its competitiveness in the global market.
Outside connections can also help us get what we want by providing feedback that enables us to clarify our intentions, see where we are going, and put our efforts in perspective. This helps to get everyone on the same page, and determine where efforts can be mutually supportive. In current debates over fiscal policy, both parties trumpet the cause of tax simplification, while meaning different things. Republicans want to close loopholes to reduce overall tax rates, while Democrats want to close them to increase revenues. Until both parties can address this fundamental dishonesty in these negotiations, they will continue to go at cross-purposes from each other.
Finally, when organizations know how they fit into a larger framework, they can determine how they can help each other fill gaps in their capabilities. Most of the recent revitalization of our major cities has been accomplished through public-private partnerships which have brought together corporations, foundations, and municipal government agencies committed to common goals. As a result of these partnerships, participating organizations have been able to set priorities, assign responsibilities, and allocate resources in accordance with a common plan.
The next time you want to evaluate whether a group is worthy of your political support, ask yourself, “Are they making a good-faith effort to connect with the support structures that could actually make their goals happen?” If the answer is yes, you have a sure-fire winner for an organization that does what it says it is going to do.
David Wendt is president of the bipartisan Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs. He was the Democratic nominee for Wyoming's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.