Tag Archives: organizations

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A Few Lessons From a Congress That Can’t Govern

Congress is the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation.

Most Americans continue to focus on the broken Presidency.  Even so, no one looking for a model of governmental efficiency would get much comfort from a good look at the American Congress. Its twin failures to produce effective public policy and work with the President offer cautionary truths about how not to communicate to produce effective action.

The impeachment process is an aberration, if a necessary one.  But the bipartisanship that characterized the Nixon impeachment is missing.  It’s also true that this President does not think of himself as a true partner with the Congress. That’s obvious now, but even in prior years he showed little interest in helping to shape legislation.

All these caveats don’t fully explain why the two deliberative bodies within the Capitol are examples that no country wants to emulate.  And there are a few more. There is some cooperation at the staff level, and examples of effective bi-partisan cooperation are occasionally on display, as with the passage of ­­­­ several jobs and tax bills in 2012 and 2015­­­­­­­­­­, and in recent bipartisan condemnation of the President’s withdrawal of support for the Kurds in Syria. But the oft-heard cliche is now true: Congress is a broken institution with public approval ratings to match.

While this branch of the federal establishment was not designed to work with the efficiency of a parliament, where a head of government is chosen from the party that wins a plurality of seats, congressional dysfunction now leaves so much on the table that needs to be addressed: everything from immigration reform to timely allocations of funds for infrastructure improvements. We knew this institution was in deep trouble recently when in 2013 a sizable number of members were ready to risk a government default and the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency: all for the purpose of pressing a dubious ideological point.

Members note that they no longer the case that they socialize after work or even share a meal while in session. 

What’s wrong?  What best practices for communicating in organizations are routinely ignored?  Briefly, some of the overwhelming problems on Capitol Hill have their origins in two ineffective communication patterns.

The first is that the body is obviously and hopelessly organized into factions—notably parties, special interest caucuses, and their media—making it likely that members will only work in groups rather than as a whole.  Since most of the process of legislating is done away from the floors of the House and Senate, it falls to party leaders, whips and members to work out in private and with their own caucuses what they will accept by way of a legislative agenda. Differences of opinion have fewer chances to be moderated in environments that would encourage conciliation.  The founders feared this hyper partisanship for good reason.  Indeed, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell moves so cautiously in his narrow partisan lane that it can be hard to tell if his image on a screen is a still photo or video.

This problem is compounded by a long tradition of individual offices set up as separate fiefdoms and spread over four buildings on the east side of the capitol. One wonders how different legislative life would be if the 100 members of the Senate worked in the conditions known to most of white-collar America:  in the same ‘cubicle farm’ spread over one floor. Support staffs who enable the isolation of members could be moved to lower floors. This would encourage more discussion across party lines and more functional coalition-building.

A second problem is the changing character of those seeking high public office. In the age of the internet and 24-hour news there seems to be more interest in the expressive possibilities of serving in public office than actually doing the work of governing.  The requirements to continually raise campaign funds and screen time are all-consuming.

In the lore of Congress there has always been an expectation that the “show horses” would sometimes win out over the “work horses.”  A retired Lyndon Johnson once complained to a CBS producer about the “pretty boys” created by the growth of television.  The former Senate Majority leader’s point was that visual media gave rise to a new breed of members more interested in the theater of politics than finding ways to bridge differences.

Congress is simply the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation.  So it offers some cautionary reminders to the rest of us working in complex bureaucracies. First, we can’t afford to isolate ourselves from others we expect to sign on to our initiatives. Leading  effectively still means using communication to build and sustain relations with those who have different views.  In addition, since its a solid axiom that we more easily find comity in small groups, trying to forge leadership from large bodies needs to be seen for the problem it frequently is: the organizational equivalent of trying to get even a few dozen college professors to form a single straight line.

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Organizational Rot

We expect organizations to get better at what they do.  But many atrophy, sometimes because of the rules-based digital systems on which they depend.

Despite clear advances in information systems, there is obvious evidence that many organizations are faltering in their abilities to provide services to their clients and customers. We expect organizations to get better at what they do.  But it seems that the older the organization, the more it is likely to atrophy, sometimes because they opt for incremental fixes for core problems. A big claim, to be sure. But the increasing longevity of Americans makes it possible for more of us to see the decline of services over time.


Consider a recent personal case. An direct flight from the northeast to Chicago should take just under two hours.  That is what I thought when I boarded a plane in Philadelphia bound for Chicago’s O’Hare.  But the United flight was delayed in leaving due to a glitch in an old Boeing 737 that was probably older than my students. We left about 40 minutes late, not that unusual.  Partly because of the delay, we were effected by afternoon thunderstorms building up over O’Hare, leaving us with too little fuel to wait them out. So we eventually diverted north to Grand Rapids Michigan to get more fuel, and to continue to work on the maintenance issue.

As luck would have it, several families on the plane were actually going to Grand Rapids via a previously arranged connection in Chicago.  So the fates delivered them to their city. Or so they thought. But despite the two-hour wait on the tarmac just short of a gate, the folks who could practically see their neighborhoods from their seats were not permitted to leave. Apparently security rules don’t allow people to change their routing. So they sat all afternoon, waiting with the rest of us to move on to an overcrowded O’Hare on the other side of Lake Michigan. Of course they then needed to find a new connection to get back to where we had just come from. This is surely not what previous generations meant about “American know-how.”

The problem here was the weather, a badly outdated plane, corporate indifference, and digital security systems constructed as a series of binaries. These days you are captive to your airline until you reach your final destination. But not that many years ago baggage could be pulled from the hold if a passenger’s plans changed.

As it happened, our return later in the week was not much better, leaving Chicago after 6:00 p.m. and not reaching our home until the next day at 2 a.m. because of more ground delays.

Crowded skies and over-scheduled airlines now make flying an endurance test for travelers that are amazingly passive and compliant. One friend described a direct flight from Albuquerque New Mexico to New Jersey that went from a scheduled four hours to nearly three full days and two unscheduled hotel stays.

Don’t fault the young; it’s all they know. But my independent-minded ancestors would have never stood for it, surely ending up on no-fly lists if they were still with us.

To be sure, travel horror stories aren’t new. But they are representative.  The point is that, like the airlines, more organizations seem to be expanding their “services” by setting up systems that can’t deliver on what was originally promised. That’s sometimes true in bank and financial services, consumer loans, appliance repair, medical insurance and governmental services: everything from basic road repairs to enrolling for Social Security. Even appliances in need of simple fixes are now tossed rather than submitted to the vagaries of  a service gauntlet.


These days most corporate dollars seem to go into marketing rather than customer service.

We sense the problem when a call to a service provider for help. The usual routine is that a robotic phone or online system takes over.  It typically allows for only a certain number of categories of response. Questions that are preset by the service provider are a cheap if deficient solution for “listening” to what another wants to say. Short of buying a yacht, no one in most organizations really wants to talk to you. These days most corporate dollars seem to go into marketing rather than customer service.

There are notable exceptions. One reason the behemoth Amazon is so popular it that it usually delivers on its what it promises. UPS has also been a part of that success. Others report good results with some car makers, insurance providers like AARP, and a large number of streaming services. These are in sharp contrast to essential human services that have been squeezed by tight state budgets and plain old bureaucratic ineptitude. For example, it’s a small kindness to not ask commuters in New York of Washington D. C. to ask about their subway commutes.  These publicly financed systems are struggling. But service problems are  often just as bad in large businesses with bloated management costs and under-paid line personnel. If you have challenges using the Post Office or a government body, look to the top, not the bottom.  Problems with mail or Amtrak or the Affordable Care Act should be laid at the doorstep of our politicians, not their workers.

A sorry solution for organizational atrophy is to find refuge in the software of amusement. It’s tempting to ‘visit’ places online rather than bother with the physical trip.  The tether of a screen seems to function as our escape route. Even so, and as challenging as it is, flying is still an amazing experience.  The thrill of seeing our world from the other side of the clouds should always matter.  And yet I traveled in a blackout on my trip to Chicago.  Passengers  near me on both sides of the plane kept their window shades down so they could play games on their phones.