Former government executive, Jeff Chen, reflects on the challenges facing the incoming Biden Administration.
On a fall evening in 2004, my college roommate introduced me to The West Wing — an American political drama series created by Aaron Sorkin. For those who are not familiar with the show, it premiered after a rather ugly period of partisanship that culminated in the Clinton impeachment trial. The West Wing follows stand-up intellectual president Jed Bartlett — played by Martin Sheen — and his fast talking, fast walking staff as they attempt to move politics forward. I remember the feeling when watching the episode when a republican lawyer and columnist — who held vastly different positions than those of her democratic counterparts — was hired to join the White House as a legal counsel. Bringing smart people closer who don’t agree with you but enjoy articulating a cohesive, thoughtful argument? What an idea! When watching the series, I was always filled with a sense of purpose, mission, civility, and patriotism. Many of us chose to watch the show for its flawed idealism and marveled in its ability to humanise the business of politics. For me, when the chance presented itself, I entered public service to do my part.
In this day and age, it is hard to believe this sentiment was even possible. The world of yesteryear is a far-flung memory, and truth be told, The West Wing was wonderful but a work of fiction. We now live in an era marked by even more divisive politics and crumbling unity, a raging pandemic that constantly teases us with the potential of a return to normality, and severely anemic economies. One would expect that we can turn to our elected leaders to guide the way out of danger, yet many are unable to acknowledge basic facts and give an even-handed assessment of the current state of things. Western harmony — especially in the United States — now balances precariously on the edge of a precipice.
The recent violent attack on the US Capitol reflects how vast swaths of the populace no longer share a common lived experience and common facts. There is little attempt to reach across communities to build towards a common goal. The ability of governments to react and govern in the face of adversity is, in part, handicapped by erosion of trust in public institutions and in each other. In fact, a multi-decade annual poll conducted by Pew Research Center in September 2020 found that just 20% of adults trust the government to do the right thing. Like a New Year’s resolution, a new presidential administration can be seen as a chance to start anew, filled with hope and possibilities. In truth, there is never a clean slate on which history can be written as one wishes — there are always competing interests at play. Instead, we are presented with a chance to renew our mindset and attitudes toward social progress, and more importantly, towards one another.
In this age of social media and oversharing, there is a plethora of emotion and finger pointing. It is critical for the next generation of public servants to chart a new course and new habits. I’d like to take a step back from politics for a moment to share three short anecdotes and discuss how small changes in our approach to government can help us all do better.
Reducing reductive thinking
During my time at NASA, I had many hard conversations with staunch believers in climate science as well as equally fervent deniers. The easiest conversations were with the earth scientists who worked on the research directly — they understood the geophysics, the tolerances of the data, and the assumptions that were made. The hardest conversations were with members of the public who were far from the scientific action. People who had unshakeable beliefs on both ends of the spectrum. Some rejected the idea of climate change outright, offering condescending opinions instead of evidence. Similarly, some climate believers were repulsed by climate deniers.
The tension over climate change and many other policy issues is not actually about the subject matter itself, but rather the manifestation of tribalism — us versus them, good versus evil, right versus wrong. If policy issues are treated as euphemisms for unrelated, political sentiments, then we are indeed in dire straits. If sentiment is the basis of argument, then progress is not possible.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, remember the dangers of reductive thinking — you run the risk of dehumanizing everyone who disagrees with your position and excluding an entire swath of the public. As Yoda once said, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Civil conversations occur when there is psychological safety and trust, when you are able to view your opposition as human. To make progress, do something that helps humanize the opposition, assuming they are ready to engage. My go-to is to have some barbeque ribs and talk about anything but work. If you can trust your opponent to eat across the table from you, you can surely have a conversation.
Question your assumptions
One of my earliest experiences in Washington was when I advised on the design of a social welfare strategy to take a digital-first approach. As many of that team were formerly from big tech companies, a digital approach was the only way. Afterall, if it worked for their internet products, it would work for the country, right? At the time, 50.6% of lower income households in the US did not have an internet subscription, especially amongst the homeless and those who live in rural areas. Thus, large swaths of Americans could be unwittingly excluded due to bad assumptions. Fortunately, this initiative never went forward.
What feels right might actually be biased — serving those who agree with you, who are in your immediate spheres, who look or sound like you. While we live in our respective bubbles, it will be tempting to believe you know better than others as you were selected to a high role. But if you lose your ability to question your core assumptions, your efforts will fail. It is a common challenge anywhere, but especially within the Beltway where competing priorities leave little room for open dialogue and introspection. Without acknowledging the barriers, initiatives may never move beyond a press release or conference. Thus, when embarking on your first initiative, question every assumption you make and bring in people who disagree with you to get their view. Ask yourself why are you pushing so hard and does it even matter to the public? If the initiative’s only appeal is that it sounds good (i.e. no path to implementation or impact on the ground), then scrap it and start again.
Less buzz for better outcomes
A former colleague once said to me “People want money, power, or love. In Washington, add appearances.” It is a place where prestige is prized. It is the one place in the US where roles such as “Associate Assistant Deputy Secretary” and “Deputy Assistant Secretary delegated to perform the duties of Deputy Secretary” exist to the discontent of organization charts. There are speaking events almost every day, giving many managers a chance to market a new initiative or speak to a variety of within-the-Beltway media outlets. And it is a place where I have been asked many times, “If it is so good, why haven’t I heard of it?” Again, keeping up appearances.
Many times, it may be worth sacrificing the buzz and attention to ensure better outcomes and better public services. In fact, many of the most effective, sustainable solutions in government are not buzzworthy. In my personal experience, I have found that technical training and building capacity is more sustainable for government human capital than having one person build an algorithm with a limited scope. Imparting new ideas and skills allows governments to evolve. A measure of success is not a press release or powerpoint deck, but whether your efforts last beyond your tenure.
The world is holding its breath and watching the US on inauguration day. Tensions are riding high and morale is low. Many are watching for political fireworks. But there is a slogan that has made its rounds in circles in D.C.: “Make Government Boring Again”. A well-functioning, no frills government is boring. A government that serves all without fanfare is also boring. There is nothing wrong with boring. For those who are hailing the call of public service, look beyond the current paradigm of operating and think about what you can do to move us forward.