The institution of government matters, and it is legit. Nonetheless, the government is often criticised, maligned and raked mercilessly over hot coal.
Some of the criticism is self-inflicted and well-deserved. For example, many often view government as bureaucratic, self-serving, parasitic, elitist, corrupt, wasteful, inefficient, reactive, bloated, tribal, cultural, polarising and divisive. It is also seen as a master of spin and doublespeak, a habitat for the best and worst of elected and appointed officials, and a promoter of nepotism and cronyism, among other things.
Government has to wear many of the tags noted above, but it can improve upon the shortcomings. In United States President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1981, he stated, “Government is not the solution to our problem: Government is the problem.”
Nevertheless, time and events have demonstrated that Mr. Reagan may have missed the bullseye with his statement. The following quote is also attributed to the former US president: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”’
This maxim may have unleashed a persistent and present level of distrust in and disrespect for government.
Roles and responsibilities
What is the function of government? It has numerous roles and responsibilities. However, the ideal, quintessential mission is to protect and provide goods and services to the community and to develop goals, objectives, strategies and tactics to protect and serve the community over the longer term.
It is unreasonable to expect markets to deliver efficient and effective services consistently, so government is expected to fill the gap. In essence, government exists to solve problems other institutions are reluctant to tackle.
Additionally, the government provides non-excludable services, such as goods and services that cannot be withheld even if some community members refuse to pay for them, like public school.
The Virgin Islands
In a modern, stable democracy such as the Virgin Islands and other regional sister countries, the civil service is the engine that drives and makes government work. But civil servants are often maligned, treated harshly, and viewed unflatteringly as lazy, self-serving, incompetent, corrupt, bureaucratic, wasteful and so on.
Yet the hard truth is that they are indispensable and that few aspects of our lives would not be chaotic without them.
Some civil servants often get the blame for poor customer service. However, the government institution must also shoulder the blame, for every civil servant from the top leaders down to the unskilled worker has a supervisor, a manager or a team leader. A common saying in the universe of facility management is “Don’t expect what you don’t inspect.”
Similarly, in government, what gets recognised and rewarded gets repeated. For example, if superb performance is recognised and rewarded, it gets repeated. But if poor performance is ignored, it too gets repeated. Moreover, senior civil servants are non-partisan advisors (or at least they should be) to elected and appointed officials. They bring public affairs and technical knowledge experience to assist elected and appointed officials in enacting policies.
The Covid-19 pandemic clearly shows that government is the go-to institution when the going gets rough and tough.
Mr. Reagan’s revolution created the mantra that government is the problem, not the solution to community problems. But during the pandemic, residents expected government to protect their health, safety and personal well-being. Consequently, borders were closed, mask mandates were imposed, social distancing was suggested, curfews and quarantines were instituted, testing and contact tracing were conducted, gatherings sizes were limited, vaccines were delivered, and stimulus was provided to individuals and businesses, among other actions.
The government was the only entity with the power to implement such measures. Further, when a natural disaster strikes or an industry closes and employees are laid off, residents lean heavily on the government for help — not the market.
Is government perfect? No. It is afflicted with many issues, some of which are self-inflicted, and others may be beyond its control. Nonetheless, voters and other residents have the ability and responsibility to demand better governing.
Voters have the ability, power and obligation to demand and hold government responsible for the things it does and the things it should have done but failed to do. The real power lies with voters and other residents, but voters yield their power to politicians. Voters must take that power back.
Moreover, some politicians and political parties desire to get power, retain power and maintain control by creating an environment of polarisation and tribalism. They weaponise issues, ignite culture wars, create division, and kill debate and compromise.
Many ardent supporters fuel this environment, adversely hampering the government’s ability to develop policies and enact needed legislation to promote growth, development and sustainability. Moreover, for selfish reasons, too many of us refuse to speak out against poor governing. Instead, we cast a blind eye towards deviant behaviour, poor performance, incompetence, corruption and so on.
The ‘best decisions’
To work more efficiently and effectively, government must make the best decisions that benefit the most people. Residents must forcefully but peacefully advocate and agitate for better government.
A country gets the government the public demands and expects. Similarly, a country also gets the government whose poor performance the public chooses to ignore. Rewarding do-nothing politicians stagnates a country. Changes may be necessary for politics to keep things on the level and continue to make government matter. However, change may not come from politicians. The public has to effect the change.
Government is not perfect and doesn’t always do things efficiently and effectively, but government matters. And citizens’ activism and engagement are needed to hold the government responsible and accountable and drive it to perform better and to make it matter. Residents must force government to strike the delicate balance between political and business decision-making.
Distrust, disrespect, cynicism, scepticism, polarisation, culture wars, tribalism, division, hypocrisy, spin and so on aside, government still matters.