Government Can be Collaborative

I’m a PhD student studying collaborative approaches to governance, comparing them to more typically combative approaches in our representative democracy. Here’s what I’ve learned:

People tend to frame their arguments in universal terms (“What I want is best for everyone”). It sounds more convincing to say, “We should do what is best for all” or “We should do what is morally right” instead of “We should do what is best for me.”

Once “what I want” is translated into “what is universally morally right” or “what is best for everyone,” then other options are framed as immoral, impractical, or oppressive.

When the government spends money on someone else, that’s “socialism” or “big government.” That someone else is called a “special interest” or marginalized as “radical” or “fringe.” (When the government spends money on me, however, that’s “common sense.”)

If the government regulates me, it’s “big government” or “job-killing red tape.” It often helps to point out that regulatory bills can be very long, regardless of whether that matters.

It’s hard to reach a compromise when both sides think the other side is immoral and has no right to advance its own interests.

When I interview people, regardless of political affiliation, they like government as long as it’s serving them. Government is never too big when you like what it’s doing. People don’t like when they feel powerless, or when they feel like another group is taking advantage at their expense.

The catch is that we all share this country, and we don’t all agree. We often have opposing or competing interests.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting the government to serve your needs. I think it becomes problematic when one expects the government to serve only their own needs at the expense of everyone else. For example, why should poor children attend underfunded schools while Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk don’t pay taxes?

The collaborative approaches I study rely on bringing together a group representing disparate interests and allowing them to reach a consensus. The ground rules are simple: Everyone here wants something different (and that’s okay) but the group as a whole needs to find a solution that everyone agrees on.

In collaborative approaches, people talk about giving a little to get a lot. They set the expectation that nobody will get all of what they want. They express curiosity and listen to one another. They learn how one group getting its way will affect other groups who want something else (and vice versa).

Consensus means that every single person has a veto. Nobody has to worry about being overruled by a majority. Consequently, hearing opposing views is seen as beneficial rather than threatening. If the group is going to reach an agreement that is truly the most durable and fair to everyone, it’s best to get everything out on the table up front.

Next time you hear someone tarring a bill or a government program as “big government” or “special interests,” question it. These are buzzwords designed to tell you to oppose whatever it is without even having to think about it.

Ultimately, in this large and diverse country, it’s impractical to expect to get everything you want while the other side gets nothing. Far too often, we don’t even know the people we disagree with, and we have no idea what they are losing when we win.

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.