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Trust and the Shutdown of Government

Tue, October 01, 2013 1:40 PM | Robert Hurley (Administrator)

Well, it happened. On October 1, 2013 the impasse between the Republicans and the Democrats led to the need to stop paying government employees. Congress has sent yet another signal that it is untrustworthy and we can expect a continued decline in the American people’s confidence and ratings of trust in their government. By the way, these ratings are now at historic lows; what may be happening is just a deepening of our cynicism as it relates to Congress. This is concerning because a citizenship that has become cynical and lost hope in its government is rather dangerous. Research shows that extreme distrust in an agent leads to a reduction of cooperation. When citizens stop cooperating with their government society breaks down. People stop volunteering, paying their fair share of taxes and obeying laws.

 

But what is the root cause of this particular impasse. Who is right and who is to blame for this trust violation?  We all have our opinions, but some facts and theories can help. First, the Affordable Care Act was enacted into law. Second, we have two groups (mostly Republicans and Democrats) with different belief systems and judgments about whether the Affordable Care Act is good or bad government. Third, one group (House Republicans) believe it is their duty to use every possible source of power to stop what it believes is bad government, even if this causes other problems. Fourth, two other groups (Democrats in the Senate and the White House) have labeled these tactics extortion and refused to negotiate, and so there is an impasse and the government has shut down.

 

Consider a corporate metaphor for this. The company has adopted a strategy but one functional area disagrees. They express their grievances, fail to change peoples’ minds and then block execution of the strategy. No company in the world could operate in this way sustainably. In a well-functioning company there is robust dialogue, perhaps even some politics and arguing but, at the end of the day, the enterprise must choose a direction and each area must support the strategy or risk being accurately labeled as disloyal, not a team player or constructionist. In the corporate world the head of such a functional area would be fired or would resign.

 

The government shutdown is yet another example that Congress is incapable of coming together on any major issue unless less there is a crisis atmosphere that forces compromise. In the language of trust research, Congress lacks three things that make it untrustworthy as an institution:

 

Alignment of Interests - They serve the interests of their base and not the larger country

Benevolence - They serve themselves to get re-elected, not the larger community

Communication – They lack the relational and communication processes to achieve understanding and compromise

 

If I were advising the CEO of a company with these problems, we could understand the root causes of the problems and fix them. In the case of Congress, the problems can also be understood but the solutions require many difficult changes. As a trust expert and an American whose ancestors died in the defense of this country, I grow more and more concerned that the government’s inability to act proactively will make problems such as extremes of income inequality, structural unemployment, a weakened infrastructure for living and competing globally much worse. At the Consortium for Trustworthy Organizations, we will try to do our part and hold conferences and write about some solutions. At the end of the day, however, the voting public must be heard loud and clear! It’s time to really understand what is going on and take action.


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