What’s Wrong with Government?

Why our expectations of government are the real problem.

A building on fire at night.
Mike Davis

It feels like the world is on fire.

Even before the pandemic, we experienced polarization, growing deficits, a climate crisis, and a widening gap between those with and those without. As the fire rages on, our governments seem powerless to address any of this. Instead, they endlessly debate minutiae, implement short-sighted changes, and seem unable to tackle the big problems. “Rome is burning” and our political leaders and government officials are figuratively playing the fiddle to calm our nerves as the flames grow out of control. Why don’t they just get a bucket and try to put the fire out?

I’m sure for some of you, that paragraph resonates. You’re frustrated and wish government would just do what they need to do. You read the title—What’s Wrong With Government? and thought, “what isn’t wrong with government?”—you probably avoid interacting with government, only doing so when you need to renew your driver’s license or pay your taxes. You might own a business or run a not-for-profit that forces you to navigate a maze of government rules and red tape. You regularly find yourself annoyed by the latest thing government did that you think went terribly wrong.

Others, however, read the introduction and were offended. Maybe it’s because you’re a politician, civil servant, or advisor to government. You may have read ‘What’s Wrong With Government?’ and heard it the same way you hear the question “what’s wrong with ice cream?” (answer: obviously nothing!). You deeply value public service and, despite the constant criticism from an unknowing public, you continue to work to improve the lives of others. If this is you, we have a lot in common.

It is my belief that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with government — it is the perfectly complicated system that society has forced it to be. That’s right, it’s our fault. The world is incredibly complex and we expect government, which is a collection of well-meaning, regular people (just like you and me), to serve up solutions to things that have never been faced. These public servants are also expected to solve these problems amidst the same maze of rules we all face when interacting with government.

While there are promising solutions to some societal issues, determining how to change century-old systems is very difficult. We all have opinions on what should be done and want our voices to be heard, yet there can be such diverging views on these complex topics that it is impossible to find solutions that will satisfy everyone. For example, lockdowns are essential to stop COVID-19 from spreading, but what about their impact on frontline workers, small business owners, and our youth?

When we provide an opinion and feel like we haven’t been heard, we disengage the next time we’re asked — meaning that only a vocal minority weighs in on government direction. And who has time to figure out what government is considering and how best to engage in the process, all while rushing home from work to get dinner ready before running back out of the house to take kids to hockey or swimming?

Society and worse yet, the pundits, provide government no latitude to experiment in finding solutions to these complex issues. Things that don’t go perfectly well are deemed failures in the media and, in order to prevent this type of negativity, government is forced to be risk-averse. In science and technology, calculated risks are exactly how we solve complexity — but society has limited government’s ability to take such risks.

This all may feel a bit daunting, but I believe there is a path forward.

Over my 20-years of working with governments throughout the world, I’ve seen these democracies suffer from much of this. I have witnessed my share of public policies gone wrong, government transformations fail, and new programs underdeliver.

I have also seen that amazing things are possible when the conditions exist for government to deliver:

  • I have helped stand up COVID-19 testing clinics from concept to reality in 48 hours.
  • I have watched as community, business and, government rallied around people who are food insecure, innovating to create a new way to get them food.
  • I have helped implement a tax program across multiple government departments and multiple business sectors that benefitted hundreds of thousands of people, changing tax law and financial systems, in a matter of months.

So, is the world really on fire? Maybe a bit, but we certainly aren’t helping by fanning the flames and lighting new matches.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to write more about “What’s Wrong With Government”, how we’re contributing to its problems, and what everyday people and government officials can do to help make things better. I’ll focus on how we can use innovation, evidence, and an understanding of human behaviour to tackle the complex problems we’re facing. My next piece will be on government’s recent movement towards a quality of life and wellbeing focus, and that it might not be as easy as it sounds.

If these topics pique your interest and you want to learn more, follow along on LinkedIn where the dialogue will continue.

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