How to improve our governing institutions and build a stronger democracy
This month, I had the opportunity to speak at the Funders’ Summit on Effective Governing Institutions in Houston, Texas. Co-hosted by the Democracy Funders Network and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, the event brought together funders and nonprofit practitioners who are interested in improving national governance.
I enjoyed speaking with this group of dedicated people and wanted to share some of my perspectives on how we can equip our governing institutions to withstand new challenges and deliver on their promise to serve the public.
Why do effective governing institutions matter?
We live in a world of many dangers and accelerating change. The list of problems facing our nation is long—the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, foreign threats, increasing inequality and more. We have only one tool for collective action to meet these challenges, and that’s our government.
But right now, our democracy itself is at stake.
Why? The list is long, again. Americans don’t trust the government; we lack much of the real-time performance information needed to help government make decisions and hold it accountable; leaders at the top levels of government focus on short-term policy wins and crisis management, rather than long-term results and improvement; and so much more.
Restoring faith in our democracy requires us to address these issues and improve the institution of government itself.
Improving our institutions
Fixing our institutions so they work better on behalf of the people in this country is not a lost cause. Here are five practical solutions to help:
- Create a government reform league for the 21st century. In the past, those working outside the public sector have joined forces to help our government work better. We need to create this type of community to address our government’s current and future challenges. Such a group would provide a forum for philanthropists, scholars, advocates and others to come together and coordinate their efforts.
- Build government capacity. To increase government’s impact, we need to invest in the capacity of our federal agencies and their employees. We need to help government recruit a younger, tech-savvy generation of public servants, build a more diverse workforce, and equip federal leaders with the resources and insights they need to be better stewards of vital public resources.
- Advocate for system reform. Our government is operating with rules from a different era, and we need to reform them. The Senate confirmation process is one example. Currently, about 1,200 executive branch roles require Senate confirmation, causing many critical leadership positions to remain vacant for too long. Reducing the number of Senate-confirmed positions would allow presidents to fill critical leadership roles quicker and provide agencies with the talent and leadership they need to best serve the public.
- Build knowledge. Great developments are happening inside the government, yet these bright spots are seldom recognized. We need to help federal agencies better share their successes and best practices with each other so that they can be replicated and scaled up more easily.
- Invest in public trust. Our research shows that just under 40% of people in the United States believe that government has a positive impact on our country and helps people like them. For Americans to trust their government, they need a better understanding what the government does and how it affects their daily lives. We can increase this understanding by developing positive messages about government and by telling more stories about the incredible work of our nation’s public servants, like we do with the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals®.
Strengthening our governing institutions may be challenging, but it is necessary and worthwhile because they are essential to a functioning democratic society.
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