Urgent and important: Navigating the political realities while building the capacity of Congress to better serve the public
In a 1954 address to the World Council of Churches, President Dwight Eisenhower summed up what he called “the dilemma of modern man.”
“I have two kinds of problems,” the president declared, “the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” This dilemma remains universal – as true today as it was in the 1950’s and just as true for senior government leaders as it is for their diverse constituents.
As we launch the Alliance for Congress this week, an initiative of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, the work ahead of us is to help Congress resolve this dilemma – allowing lawmakers to be both responsive to constituents and political demands while also growing into effective stewards of the institution.
For 20 years, the Partnership has worked with the executive branch to solve critical workforce and management challenges, allowing agencies to build solid foundations to address the urgent matters that can monopolize time and resources. The Alliance for Congress will draw on the Partnership’s experience and expertise, but most significantly, it will utilize the talents and knowledge of a diverse, passionate community of people already striving to support the House and Senate even as public attention often focuses on political party disparities and personalities.
For the organizations that comprise the Alliance – our “allies” – we aspire to be a force multiplier – not only amplifying and adding to their good work, but providing capabilities to significantly increase the likelihood of successfully transforming Congress.
This includes supporting those inside Congress, like the bipartisan Select Committee on Modernization of Congress, as they convince their colleagues that institutional change can help all members better serve their constituents. We’ll demonstrate the political advantage that comes with championing the institution – publicly recognizing those who solve problems, highlighting lessons learned that can be applied by others and helping audiences outside the Beltway share their expectations of a well-functioning Congress.
The Alliance also will equip members and staff with the tools and resources they need to meet the public’s expectations. Alongside congressional support offices and our allies, we’ll seek to open up professional development opportunities to more staff and work with members to define their personal vision of public service. We’ll continue our work with constituent case workers, helping them establish more productive relationships with federal agencies and share best practices more widely. And, with the advice of those who have frequently occupied the witness seats in congressional hearings, we’ll develop recommendations to make congressional oversight of federal agencies productive instead of performative.
We also will recognize, amplify and support the research and activities of our allies. From sharing news of upcoming panel discussions, to collaborating on research into workplace culture, to building a strategic communications plan with our allied organizations, we will draw more attention to solutions developed by a broader network of concerned organizations and individuals.
As I contemplated Eisenhower’s articulation of “the dilemma of modern man” and the form it’s taken on Capitol Hill, I was reminded of another piece of wisdom from our 34th president: “Never send a battalion to take a hill if a regiment is available.”
Congressional reformers and the civil society groups that want to see Congress become a more inclusive and effective institution have achieved some significant successes, but completing the mission will require more effort and more allies. The Alliance for Congress is committed to this cause and the vision of a Congress that earns the public trust by listening, leading and legislating effectively for our entire diverse nation.
Jeff McNichols was previously the director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Alliance for Congress.