Government efforts have often met with limited success or outright failure. But it's easy to understand why serious problems don't get solved more readily in modern democracies, where the government must balance the conflicting interests of millions of people, including powerful elites, while under intense scrutiny to produce short-term results before midterms or elections.
The Problem with Policy
Policy, on its best day, is painfully slow, minimally more riveting than watching a turtle run a race. And that's assuming a political landscape that is incredibly welcoming to said policy. But given the toxic political polarization we see today, getting any policy through the door with bipartisan support is a practical fantasy. (Which is a deeply disturbing reality worth its own discussion another day.)
But let's assume that this piece of policy does successfully run the gauntlet. In crafting that work, policy makers have to appear decisive and resolute, with ready answers at their fingertips for all manner of problems. As a result, an open and deliberate problem-solving approach, shaped by an intentional trial and error, is practically impossible to institutionalize in that sort an environment. Also, policies tend to be shaped by executive or legislative staff members who are removed from the details of implementation, yet under intense time pressures to deliver comprehensive solutions, or "plans". As a result, national policies are regularly based on assumption that get tested after they become law.
Major initiatives advanced by governments begin with policy battles and end with programs planned and implemented through agencies or contracted to service providers. Public policies often lack a nuanced appreciation for ground level details. Rules and procedures often limit flexibility and responsiveness. And any modification at the loval level may involve a long approval process.
Even when policies are deeply flawed, it takes a monumental effort to correct them. Once a program is rolled out, with a budget and constituency to defend that budget, it will remain there almost regardless of its effectiveness. The primary feedback mechanism for policy makers - press reports and elections - punish failure and demand virtually instant results. Consequently, elected officials come to favor the short-term appearance of success over actual substantive change. This dynamic, understandably, distorts policy making.
Many ideas get off to a good start, but get watered down in their implementation. The problem may be that the agency or institution advancing the idea is unable to grow and maintain quality. As quality deteriorates, quality wanes. Or disaster strikes, and a fragile organization is washed away before its able to establish roots.
Expectations are Low
Governments - liberal and conservative alike - were widely perceived as impotent in the face of concentrated corporate power. A consensus emerged that governments, too often, failed in their core representative duties, and that corporations too often exacerbated suffering and inequality and destroyed the environment for short-term gain. The clearest indication of the dissatisfaction with government was the decline of voter turnout in virtually every nation where free elections were held.
During the 1980s and 90s, there was increased attention on the wealth gap. People's expectations shifted. Frustration and anger mounted about conditions (and abuses) that had previously gone unquestioned and unchallenged.
Corporations have become incredibly powerful. And governments conspicuously failed to stand up to business interests when it came to safeguarding the environment, protecting human rights, ensuring access to health care, and decent working conditions and regulating financial institutions.
If a change runs counter to the interests of well-endowed groups - like oil, drugs, or guns - you'll notice how routinely a brutally a promising idea is killed without a fair chance. Everyday Americans are worried that their health, economic, education, and justice systems are grossly inadequate to meet today's challenges. Very few disagree about the need for reform, but corporate constituents and their enabling cronies battle to defend status quo till the end.
Too many policies and projects were explicitly designed to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Reforms were needed, and nowhere more than within the very institutions charged with protecting the public interest.
But many realized change was not going to originate from within these institutions. For change to happen, new spheres of influence - or impact - would need to be created. People seeking solutions are no longer willing to wait for governments, corporations, churches, or universities to lead.
The Citizen Sector
The US Constitution stipulates that all powers not explicitly given to the states or to the federal government is given to the people. This presumption of a robust citizen sector was a departure from the global norm. May countries wouldn't put similar laws in place until the 1990s. The rush of citizen activity that America experienced a century ago when faced with profound and painful transition is analogous to today's global changes.
This is a bold foreshadowing of a new stage of democracy - one animated by citizens who are actively involved in building, shaping, renewing solutions that improve society for all. They see the problems that are being ignored, mishandled, or blatantly exploited by traditional institutions, and they are creating their own solutions.
Citizenship could, and should, be construed differently. We might define a good citizen as one who takes an active and intentional role in shaping the good of society at all levels. The founding fathers didn't just look after their own economic interests; they built institutions to realize their vision for a new nation. In doing so, they modeled the power and responsibility of citizenship. Today, the example they set can be seen most readily in the field of social entrepreneurship, with hands-on problem solving emerging as a more common expression of citizenship.
These changes are driven by the failure of old institutions to meet the needs of our time. In a world of rapid change, more people need to be involved in solving problems. A thriving economy requires that people build new businesses that serve society in multiple ways, and adaptive society requires that people construct and collaborate on solutions.
In the years ahead, more people will consider it natural to take the lead in the creation of solutions to social problems. A few decades ago, it took unusual confident and vision to become a social entrepreneur. The role was undefined; examples were rare. Today, the path is becoming clear.
John Gardner captured this beautifully in his book Self-Renewal:
"Society is not like a machine that is created at some point in time and then maintained with a minimum of effort; it is being continuously re-created, for good or ill, by its members. This will strike some as burdensome, but it will summon others to greatness."