WHEN THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD

The government is moving once again towards shutdown. Republicans are threatening to tear up the deal that will prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Donald Trump has become a viable presidential candidate. Clearly, something is wrong. But what?

In this country, we have two coexisting systems that deal with the governance of our complex modern society. The first is the formal political structure: from small towns all the way to Washington, politicians and bureaucrats are part of the intricate machine that does what we normally think of as governing. However, that structure is part of a far more complex system. The interaction of business, nonprofit, and government, though informal, does much of the actual governance, the work of managing a modern society.

Unfortunately, the workings of the political machine have been gummed up by special interests and increasing partisanship to the point at which Donald Trump has become a viable Presidential candidate. And the informal system isn’t doing much better. Because the “members” of the three operating sectors do not know or trust each other, they cannot work together to solve problems before they become too large.

In the words of Cool Hand Luke, “What we got here is a failure to communicate”.

Fifteen years ago, a small city in upstate New York was looking for a way to rebuild its economy.  Business, nonprofit, and government leaders were gathered. Introductions were made. Hands were shaken. Coffee was drunk.  What they found was that everyone in the room knew there was a problem. They knew they wanted to solve it. But until that day, they didn’t know each other. And while the rebuilding process is not yet complete, the intersector collaboration enabled by that meeting started the city on the road to recovery.

For twenty years, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam conducted an informal study of Italian sub-national governments. He wanted to know why some of these nearly identical governments performed so much better than others. He found a surprising answer: choral societies. But how could singing possibly make a difference in quality of governance? The answer is obviously that it didn’t. What was important was that members of choral societies (and soccer clubs, the presence of which were also correlated with quality governance) do a lot of drinking and chatting. Through these societies, people from all parts of local society got to know one another and developed trust and understanding outside of work. And then, when one member of the choral society saw a problem in the community, she didn’t feel like she was getting in touch with a bureaucrat, but with a trusted friend.

With the advent of the internet, people became able to connect to more and more people through platforms like Facebook and Twitter. While it’s counterintuitive, more digital interaction does not aid intersector communication. It actually makes it easier to stay within our comfort zone and interact primarily with the people we already know, rather than going out and forming new bonds of trust across sectors. Of course, that’s just for now. Perhaps some young genius might write an app to do for the digital age what the choral societies accomplished in Italy.

Many people in many different lines of work want to put our society on the road to a better tomorrow. But the rubber can’t hit the road until we’re all in the same car.

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