#181 – Bob Barkley: The Role of Our Elected Leaders

Much of the problem we face today in the US is the lack of understanding of a necessary and proper role for government, and, in particular, of our Congress. They appear incompetent in almost every area they tackle. Put succinctly, they appear incompetent because they are! And no one should expect otherwise.
All successful enterprises – including governments – understand the difference between a strategic function and an operational function. Leadership’s function (in this case, our executive and representational branches) is strategic. In that role our nation’s leadership must first of all determine the aspirations, expectations, and requirements of the people. In other words, when someone in that position states, “I don’t listen to the polls,” they have just admitted to NOT doing their job.
The fact is that polling is essential for them to do their jobs, albeit non-partisan and objective polling. We should have a “Congressional Polling Office” not unlike the “Congressional Budget Office.”
After determining the needs, feelings, and opinions of the people, our elected leaders next strategic function is to translate what they gather into a statement of purpose for each office of government. For example, in education they should develop an overall purpose statement accompanied by not more than five general corollary objectives.
They must then determine how they will measure progress towards that purpose and those objectives. Failing to do this makes the purpose and objectives somewhat undefined since if they cannot be measured they simply add to the confusion rather than guide the institution towards greater focus.
And all of this must be done before anyone begins to lay out the operational methods of achieving said purpose and objectives. Any leadership person or group that fails to do this is incompetent from the start.
And when those in leadership begin to dicker with the operational functions, incompetence and general failure, or at least gross mediocrity is inevitable. The operational functions should be left to the professionals. For example, in education it should be left to the educators to design and implement the best approaches to be applied to achieving the adopted purpose/objectives. It is interesting that those schools getting recognized for success have almost always operated that way, and yet leaders seem unwilling or unable to accept their own proper role or perform it.
Were we to apply this to the current health care/insurance fiasco, I believe it would be surprising to see how much agreement there is across the traditional political spectrum. Now we have politicians and pundits saying, ad infinitum, “The American people think….” without citing any credible and unbiased information gathering mechanism. It is the height of incompetence and arrogance, and it serves our nation poorly.
All that said, it assumes that Congress is a purposeful institution. Is it? I doubt it. Members of Congress serve different constituencies. Consequently, the only chance that Congress will operate purposefully – and competently – is the presence of strong and capable leadership. That might come from both within Congressional ranks and/or from the White House – most likely the latter. It might also be provided by an independent sector, although this would rely extremely heavily on a responsible journalistic entity which we are also sorely lacking.
Nevertheless, such leadership must arise or we will continue to muddle along randomly and ineffectively. Perhaps it is time to redesign and re-establish our national elected leadership so it is more attuned to the nation as a whole rather than to its disparate parts.
Bob Barkley, counselor in systemic education reform, author, and retired Executive Director of the Ohio Education Association. Worthington, Ohio.
Email: rbarkle@columbus.rr.com