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The Ninth Influence: Limitations of Government

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The Ninth Influence:
Limitations of Government

 

Oooh! That title sounds like a direct-to-video apocalyptic movie or perhaps a manager’s strategy for the final inning of a baseball game. But what is the Ninth Influence? In short, it’s our response to the question almost always heard after a presentation on the Eight Influences identified in our groundbreaking report titled Horizon Initiative: Chambers 2025.

To paraphrase and amalgamate the many similar questions: “What about the influence of government inadequacy?” Even when we’re presenting to chambers that have very little involvement in public affairs or government relations, some iteration of this question invariably arises.

The phrase “government inadequacy” is, of course, neither fair nor accurate. It is a gross generalization—an indictment of every person, institution and department in every jurisdiction.

To acknowledge the inefficiency or ineffectiveness of our government systems, however, is not a matter of blame, shame or guilt. It’s just… a thing.

Thoughtful people recognize that the governments under which we live and work are our own collective creations, or at least the creations of our grandparents. With a nod to Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Interestingly, the recognition of the Ninth Influence has struck a chord with representatives of government, as much as with business leaders. City managers and state legislators chuckle in self-deprecating awareness of their inability to steer, or change, the entities they theoretically control.

Those who shake their heads and wrack their brains when faced with catch-22 contradictions in enforcement of local zoning laws are not un-American; they’re just confounded. The “inadequacy” describes the condition of our centuries-old structures, systems and practices, as well as the requisite quadrennial dance-marathon required of those who seek elections to positions of power within those structures.

Yes, there are individuals and factions that exacerbate the weaknesses inherent in our method of governing, but the question is not whether someone or some group is at fault. We might just as well blame the Mayflower Compact for the limitations it instilled in New England town hall government.

Is there evidence that the current systems inhibit our capacity to prosper? A resounding yes.

  • When state and federal governments routinely miss constitutional budget deadlines, leading to “emergency” funding band-aids, it erodes investor confidence.
  • Maybe you can remember back to 2010, when President Obama acknowledged that his would-be torrent of infrastructure investment (Recovery Act) had shrunk to a trickle because “there is no such thing as a shovel-ready project.”
  • When permitting for all kinds of local projects becomes politicized or stymied by the hamster wheels of bureaucracy, the resulting delays impede recovery of struggling neighborhoods.
  • If eight loud voices at a school board meeting can halt meaningful reform, or needed investment in students, then educational outcomes suffer.
  • Parliamentary rules of order in legislative committees and general sessions make it difficult to pass emergency bills, much less planned improvements to future economic conditions.
  • Between addiction to direct democracy (ballot initiatives, constitutional amendments, etc.) and rule-making by agency heads, passage of meaningful business legislation has become a rarity in some counties and states.
  • If a local jurisdiction employs excessive fines on individuals or businesses, not for the sake of justice but to bolster its budget, can we hope that anyone will feel welcome?

It goes on and on. Mandates from federal or state government create untenable burdens on counties. Voting rules change to suit the parties in control. Well-meaning public servants see orders countermanded within days. Overlapping jurisdictions lead to cumbersome and contradictory rules for businesses. Lobbyist pressure replaces logic, evidence and sometimes humanity. One-issue legislators bring governing to a halt in Washington, Sacramento, Harrisburg and Albuquerque. Work-arounds neutralize rules limiting gifts to lawmakers.

Contracting and procurement practices almost guarantee waste. Public sector balance sheets are held together by admittedly faulty expectations of investment returns. And, of course, “governance by the loud” causes all levels of government to choose poorly when setting priorities.

We all know the clichéd acronyms that describe hindrances to community growth — NIMBY, CAVE, BANANA, etc. Now, we might need to add another to the list: NIMTO (not in my term of office).

In its well-established Six Pillars strategic blueprint for the Sunshine State, the Florida Chamber of Commerce describes the need to address not only government, but civic governance on a larger scale. All kinds of entities are affected by the Ninth Influence: hospital boards, economic development entities, unions, associations, corporate boards, philanthropies. The challenge of governance is everywhere.

Many government and governance problems are stubborn anachronisms, but others are caused by recent whims of incumbent office holders. These problems lead to recriminations and even incarcerations, but seldom to meaningful reform. Yes, occasionally in the past a city like San Diego, Buffalo, Harrisburg or Vallejo was so upside-down financially that it was forced to accept a control board to right its fiscal ship. Even then, however, underlying governance limitations are seldom addressed.

Then there are the simple, but distressing, ways that lack of accountability in government can affect chambers of commerce. Will a senator who promised to attend your policy luncheon show up? Can you count on an approved government grant or contract with the chamber to be paid in a timely manner? Are the added police required for your Octoberfest going to provide security on the days and places they’ve promised? Will the security cameras downtown be monitored as regularly as you were assured when the business community raised the money to pay for them?

It should come as no surprise that chambers seeking to advance their communities and member businesses confront the Ninth Influence every day. All of us love to hear stories about wonderful advances made when public, private and philanthropic leadership align to tackle tough issues. Stories from chambers in Oklahoma City, Lexington, Bowling Green, Evansville, Glendale and especially Detroit during its comeback are inspiring. Yet the tales are often composed of herculean efforts to overcome or outmaneuver dominant governance models or government systems.

Faced with the Ninth Influence challenge, there are four roles for chambers of commerce to consider:

Fixer
A chamber’s hundreds of connections and deep understanding of local policy and governance enable direct intervention on behalf of individual companies, neighborhoods and economic sectors. Direct advocacy for your members is important, as they attempt to deal with sometimes incomprehensible government systems. Develop and hone the knowledge and skill sets required to excel at this case work, but you must also find ways to monetize and articulate the value of such support services.

Windows of Opportunity
Occasionally, a crack appears in the “business-as-usual” halls of government. As one chamber exec put it, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Because scandals involving elected officials are terrible in the short term, you should try to find the silver lining that might appear to change systems for the long term. Government action to attract – or save – a major employer will often be a one-off, company-specific incentive, but such a moment can be used to create a new precedent with value for all businesses. City budget crunch, change of party control in a legislature, philanthropic windfall, election of a local celebrity to higher office — any of these could create an opportunity to permanently eliminate a hindrance or install a reform to help your region thrive going forward.

Endeavor to Persevere
One word that pops up repeatedly in the narratives of chambers that have moved their policy agendas forward in the face of the Ninth Influence is persistence. There is no magic bullet, secret sauce or miraculous conversion. System change in education takes decades, not months. Improving the reputation of private sector employers in the minds of government officials takes multiple impressions over time — a hundred messages, not a single statement from one powerful CEO. Creating buzz around the notion of changing the priorities of state government can take two or three legislative sessions, even when the majority party sentiments are with you. Unlike politicians, or even business elites, the chamber is positioned to keep on keeping on.

Instructor
Using the ACCE network, connect with chamber peers in communities where progress is being made on improving governance and aligning leadership. Capture these models and examples and share them with those in positions of authority in your region. Let the community-at-large know that chaotic or overly rigid governments are neither universal, nor inevitable. Every city and region imagines itself to be hobbled by uniquely unfavorable circumstances. Shedding light on other tough markets where progress has occurred can reduce local resistance and inertia.

As with the original Eight Influences from the Horizon Initiative, organizations and regions have differing perspectives on how we govern ourselves. In many areas of North America, chambers might be quite proud of the way their own regional governments operate and cooperate, while acknowledging that “the state” or “the feds” are a problem. In other cases, a strong and effective state or provincial government may be stymied by rules, politics, customs, personalities and demands for “local control.”

Let’s face it: most cities are not about to rewrite their charters. Candidates and incumbents scrambling for much-needed staff or ad money will seldom gamble away their reputations or seats working on campaign finance reform. State agency people won’t lobby to make their departments expendable. Would you? “Good government” groups have come to be seen as political by both sides of the aisle. So, where does that leave you?

Some very astute readers (more observant than the authors) noticed that the original Eight Influences of the Horizon Initiative could be divided into two categories. The first being external market forces that are coming whether we like it or not. And the second being internal factors about our business-led, civic-economic entity, which we need to address if we hope to advance our organizations and towns.

The Ninth Influence, which we call the Limitations of Government, falls into a category of its own. It is, in most jurisdictions and regions, a tenacious reality which we must tweak, overcome, work with or work around, depending on the nature of those who govern and the challenges we face.

That struggle, to one degree or another, is part of business life, and therefore chamber life. In communities around the country, chambers take on and call out those who govern poorly. Workforce Investment Boards are changed from ineffective to customer-centric dynamos. Legislators, school board members and city councils often respond to calls for action and smart decisions. Presidents, governors, mayors, county executives and school superintendents are either praised or pilloried for introducing real reform, but some of them do succeed. And cumbersome non-government organizations become as efficient themselves as they push for with government. It can happen. Chambers can lead.

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