For Smarter Government, Solve at the Right Level

When a big issue emerges in US governance or politics, who do we trust and expect to solve it?

What *should* happen federally or in the constitution? What really actually shouldn’t? What are the dangers of doing something only locally, without considering other options? What are the dangers of doing something nationally, without considering alternatives?

How often do we stop to consider, for issues we care about? What holds us back?

This week, my partner and I’ve travelled to Grinnell, Iowa, center of the Hawkeye State, to stay with some old friends — a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Army Infantry and his wife, who’s taught all over the world alongside his deployments — and to observe and participate in the excitement and collective action of the Caucuses.

A theme among our breakfast, dinner, evening news-watching, chocolate-nibbling and nightcap-sipping conversations has been politics and policymaking. And the more and more we converse, the more and more I’m drawn to recall one of the biggest differences I grew up understanding between conservative vs. liberal values — the scale of government each party believes is best to achieve the vision we want for this country.

So often on the left, we view Republicans (and the ‘center coast’ of the states) as this monolithic mass of pitchfork-wielding discontents who lack human values, in addition to lacking views that match up with our own.

But in digging deeper these past few days, I’m reminded of the ‘big government’ versus ‘restricted government’ views I grew up in Kansas considering so central to the Republican/Democrat divide.

On face, it seems we’re at an impasse with gun control and global warming.

But it’s been amazing to dig deeper into the issues with our friends and hosts to realize that in many cases, we actually do agree that pollution (i.e. mass dumping of litter at snorkeling beaches and wildlife preserves) and gun violence (deaths of students at movie theaters and minorities in gang-ridden areas) are huge issues.

Our disagreement is actually more administrative than the media tends to lead me to believe: how and where and who is the right level of government and reform on a policy level to address these challenges.

How often is a federal law the right thing to pass? How often does one size and gun control best fit all? How often does a sweeping solution create negative side-effects its advocates never considered before moving fast to put it into place?


This conversation is just beginning, but I’m energized to go back to my systems thinking and structural policymaking theory to reassess what I think are the appropriate intervention areas for policymakers at the constitutional, federal, or Supreme Court level, versus what I do believe really can, should, or must be handled at the local, county or state level.

A big open question for me is, what network effects and technology tools can we leverage to more effectively spread best practices from a local level, if and when local governance is actually the best and most appropriate actor to deploy a particular change?

There’s so much we can apply here from business and innovation practice to the public sector.

I look forward to more great dialogs and inquiry about not just what we need to do, but why, for whom, and how.


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