The system is broken. It needs to be fixed, but how? And by whom?
Both presidential candidates promise change. But campaign rhetoric means little once the elections are history. Part of this is because the world looks different when words have to be translated into action.
But the way our political system has evolved over the years virtually assures that significant change will not come from within. The two political parties have become combatants in a war for power, where almost anything goes. The “out” party has developed effective means to block significant change by the party in power, and when its turn comes, it normally attempts to undo any change that has actually occurred.
Change won’t come from politicians who must adhere to party politics to get elected and stay in office, who adjust their “morality” to assure a constant flow of necessary funding from special interest groups and who curry favor with constituents rather than look after national interests.
It won’t come from those special interest groups that seek their own biased ends, sometimes to the detriment of the rest of the nation.
And, unfortunately, it seems unlikely (unless substantial changes occur) that it will come from the residents of this nation taking an active role in the processes of government. Few take the time to express themselves to their elected officials, unless there is an issue of crisis proportions, and many don’t even take the time to go to the polls.
I am convinced that the only way significant change will occur is through citizen involvement. This should be, as Abraham Lincoln saw it, a government of, by and for the people, not the politicians. So we seem to be without a solution unless we can get “the people” back into the equation. But perhaps there is another alternative.
I don’t like dealing with “half-baked” ideas that have not been fully defined. But I have also found that it is often useful to express thoughts in a forum where many different ideas and thought processes can be brought to bear.
This often results in refining those thoughts and ideas into useful vehicles, or stimulating new ideas, piggy-backing on the old, that develop more productive pathways. So here goes.
Many government agencies already contain an inspector general function. Using the U.S. Agency for International Development as an example, the role of the IG is to “prevent fraud, waste, abuse, and violations of law and to promote economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the operations.”
The IG usually operates with great latitude and has substantial powers. But although this function has proved valuable in working within agencies, there is no similar watchdog at the macro-level. And this is where the need is most urgent. So let’s establish a type of resident IG.
The concept would establish a new cabinet level Department of Citizen Initiatives (or something of that nature). Yes, I know. Solving a problem by creating additional bureaucracy seems counterproductive. But this one would be much different.
The DCI would have no programs of its own. Its sole role would be to establish and support citizen panels (more on this later) to monitor (and grade performance of) government agencies and to address specific, high-priority national issues. The DCI would establish the groups, provide logistic support and disseminate the results. These panels would come and go, as national priorities changed.
Two processes would need to be initiated, concurrently. First, the deliberative processes of the panels would be totally open, perhaps using the Internet or TV.
Second, and critically, every government agency involved would be required, by law, to respond, publicly, to the finding and suggestions of the panels, either providing action plans for implementation or justifying the reasons for rejecting any recommendations. The panels would take their “authority” solely from popular support and involvement.
Politicians would still be needed. Government leadership needs to be more than tallying voter preferences and implementing them. True leadership requires thoughtful analysis, and the majority viewpoint is not always best. But the effective leader will also explain why he or she is deviating from the prevailing sentiments. So the citizen panels would be advisory, but with such visibility that those recommendations would carry great weight in shaping government thinking and actions.
The Internet brings mixed blessings. But on the positive side, it provides a vehicle that links most households in America. Constructive ways to use it, both to obtain ideas and to disseminate information should be easy to find. The key will be an informed and involved citizenry.
The big issue that would need further development relates to the selection of panels — who would be at the heart of the process? First, aside from those panels which would provide oversight on government agencies and their programs, issues would have to be selected.
Second, to be effective the panels must be small (perhaps no more than 10 people), although they might draw upon the entire nation for input.
Finally, they must contain people who are knowledgeable and present balanced viewpoints, serving as forums to reconcile differences and propose new initiatives.
One might hope that we could find a Diogenes who could identify cooperative, informed people of high integrity on each issue. This probably won’t work. An alternative would be to recognize existing biases and assemble panels that include the major biases, but in a balanced manner, and to select leaders who have the respect of the nation and the ability to help move disparate positions towards convergence. And of course, the output of these panels does not have to be unanimous and minority reports could be submitted. The key element would be the total transparency, both on panel deliberations and government response.
Our entire legal system is based upon a willingness to place very serious matters, sometimes matters of life and death, in the hands of citizen panels. By and large, the jury system has worked well. This is a parallel, without the finality that comes with jury decisions.
Again, it is doubtful that significant change will come from within. Turning the system upside down is not a meaningful option either. We need to get away from complex and arcane laws and introduce more common sense and moral thinking into the issues that affect our lives. The establishment of something like the Department of Citizen Initiatives would begin the process of change, be “relatively” unthreatening to the powers that be, and increase citizen involvement and awareness in the decision-making process that affects us all.
Your thoughts, on refinement or alternatives would be much appreciated.
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at email@example.com.