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The ‘Right-size’ of Government

All government programs have a basis in human need and community sustainability. From deep within us, the better part of our humanity calls us to care about our neighbors’ well-being so the social fabric that sustains us and enriches us does not tear irreparably. Through years of dilemmas and solutions, an evolving governmental layering has institutionalized our systemic concerns into departments and agencies with huge responsibilities and budgets. It was inevitable that one day we would have to take a closer look at our values and priorities, concerning the reach and depth of governmental obligations. But now…massive budget cuts at all levels of government are making some really gut-wrenching choices essential. Human needs don’t go away just because a government program is cut. Some human problems demand public solutions.

The empathy and compassion of people is astounding! When a family member or neighbor is suffering, ordinary people find the strength, courage and resources to help. As a pastor, I’ve seen amazing acts of kindness and heroic sacrifices for others who find themselves in difficult times. When I was working with natural disaster survivors, I was impressed by their concern and generosity for their neighbors…many times recognizing that the other family’s needs were more critical than their own. Here is the basis for government programs…everyday people do care. Communities have been meeting the human needs of their neighbors for longer than history books can report.

With increased prosperity and a growing sense of fairness, services and assistance previously provided by volunteers and charitable giving in local communities gradually became institutionalized…first in towns and cities…then in counties and states…and ultimately in federal agencies. Small successes led to bigger visions. So…have we created an unsustainable, multi-level governance network? The answer is…most likely, yes. In my observation, we have taken a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach too often in public problem-solving…when in doubt, create an agency…and then, when in doubt, let the federal government take care of it, because they can just print more money to cover the cost.

Tea Party leaders and libertarians are very vocal about our current federal budget and deficit dilemmas, proposing a much smaller governmental footprint in our nation. But…the human needs that are currently met by the programs they want to cut or eliminate won’t go away when the agencies close. These problems would still exist…and they would then fall once again into each of our communities. Some towns and cities with wealthy and stable citizens would probably do quite well. Many communities, however, would fall into their own ‘Great Depression’ of high unemployment, deep poverty and systemic hopelessness. I guess the Tea Party folks are counting on being far enough away from these problems that they won’t have to see them or respond in any way.

What is the ‘right-size’ level for essential government services? How can necessary services be provided effectively, equally and fairly without any governmental infrastructure? How much disparity of well-being…between neighborhoods…between urban and rural…between cities within counties…can our culture experience without a raft of dangerous consequences? Is it in the best interest of our country to let some regions prosper while others struggle to just survive? If the ‘one-size-fits-all’ method of public problem-solving isn’t working for us, it’s probably time to discuss how we can work together to create a ‘right-size’ approach. But…this kind of public decision-making will require much more engagement and interaction by a much wider diversity of everyday citizens.

But…here’s the really, really good news! In recent years, our information technologies and social networks have created some great tools for meaningful interaction where the old barriers to inclusive public learning have been shattered. And…they are well-suited to support a decentralized and highly diverse ‘right-size’ approach to public problem-solving. At present, these powerful tools are pretty much idling…warming up so to speak…getting comfortable in the daily practice of more and more citizens. A ‘right-size’ vision will put these tools…and others that will be created as needed…into action as a more dynamic, organic and resilient problem-solving culture emerges.

Some human problems demand public solutions…but not all human problems demand the same public solution. A blending of local, face-to-face conversations and online connections has the potential to support the development of more ‘right-size’ problem-solving. The power of this blend of personal and virtual networking was seen in the ‘Coffee Party’ phenomenon, where online connections gave people the clear topics and increased courage to organize conversations with their neighbors. Human needs won’t disappear with budget cuts or agency closures. We’ll find our way forward together through increasingly effective and diverse public engagement…because the empathy, compassion and sense of fairness of the American people won’t disappear anytime soon either.

Craig Paterson

I’m the primary researcher-writer-project manager for the California NIF Network, living and working in Fairfield, CA. I’ve worked in community deliberative efforts for over 30 years…and with National Issues Forums (NIF) deliberative projects for 12 years. Recently, I’ve been investigating and planning deliberative conversations in the virtual world of Second Life…with connections in real-life settings. For all of my ‘Deliberative IDEAS’ blog posts, you can follow this link: http://delibcaideas.org/

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Craig Paterson
I am the primary researcher/writer/project manager of the 'California NIF Network' for face-to-face deliberative work in communities, and the creator and coordinator of 'Deliberative IDEAS' for online deliberative work, particularly in the virtual world of Second Life. I've done extensive work in deliberative theory and practice, including many issue framing projects.

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