“May you live in interesting times”Ancient Chinese curse
Threats to the peace, security and prosperity of the world – and the United States – are at alarming levels. In 2017 more of humanity is displaced and seeking refuge than at any time since the massive dislocations of World War II. Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya remain open wounds that exacerbate sectarian splits and cycles of violence and destruction throughout a volatile region and the entire world. The Russian Federation has revived the spirit and practice of the Cold War, directly attacking U.S. democratic institutions. North Korea aggressively pursues nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them against the U.S. and its allies. Climate change is physically reshaping our world and undermining the basis of stability and prosperity in the short, medium and long term. A nationalist and nativist chorus is growing around the world, straining national and international systems, while populism is on the rise and the public institutions required to address these many challenges are under attack from both inside and out.
The United States itself is in uncharted territory. Partisanship in Washington and across the country is at troubling levels, and populist politics offer greater division and disharmony in place of solutions and public policy worthy of the name. Hate crimes of every stripe are on the rise. Transparency, civic virtue and civil discourse are undermined from the top. Unfounded claims of wiretapping by the President against his predecessor undermine the foundations of democratic alternation of power and democratic discourse. Public institutions are under attack by the very people elected and appointed to run them. Judges, the civil service, scientists, the media…no one is immune. While the world desperately needs the strength and example of America, the “City on a Hill” feels to many people more like a “city in a ditch.”
We are indeed living in interesting times.
So, what are good people of all backgrounds and political persuasions to do? How do those committed to advancing democracy and the public good fill the breach? What can members of our School of Public Policy community do?
The answer, in short, is that we must recognize the “governance imperative” that this moment – and indeed this era – demands, and band together to strengthen governance across the board.
First, we must work on a bi-partisan basis to fashion fundamental national policies which a broad majority of Americans can support – on healthcare, immigration, energy, infrastructure, budget policy and a range of other pressing issues. Big and complex problems also demand big and inclusive coalitions to solve them. The work of citizens isn’t over once their ballot is cast, it has only begun. Holding our leaders accountable, to all and for all, is the sacred duty of every citizen. On the foreign policy side, this also entails a fundamental recommitment to allies, diplomacy, multi-lateral collaboration, and foreign assistance to re-establish and reinvigorate America’s role in the world after a very disorienting few months.
Second, we must ensure that the federal government is able to play its role in delivering those policies by improving government systems, not dismantling them. Managing the machinery of government requires pragmatism, not ideology. Institutions which guarantee the rule of law and which provide basic services and basic dignity to all Americans must be supported. On a direct level, that means we must support our students and alumni who have chosen to serve their country by working in the federal government. We honor your service. It is needed more than ever.
Third, we must double down on our state and local policy-making constituencies. Conservatives who believe in Federalism, and Liberals who believe in government’s ability to help, should be united in making things work at the state and local levels in the coming years. Here in Maryland, we can use our many capabilities and mission as a land-grant university to serve our state and advance the public good. We will continue to work actively with the Governor’s office, the Maryland General Assembly, Prince George’s County and other local jurisdictions to innovate and deliver solutions directly and through policy channels. Our first-of-a-kind “Do Good Campus” can help to catalyze a “Do Good State.”
Fourth, we must better engage and integrate the private sector and civil society in our basic public policy equation. More than 80 percent of the U.S. economy lies in private hands, with similar figures seen across many economies of the world. The nonprofit sector contributes almost a trillion dollars to the U.S. economy annually and is the third largest employer after the retail and manufacturing sectors. At SPP we are fortunate to have a range of scholar practitioners with experience across sectors in our professoriate, among our students, and across the width and breadth of our alumni. We are also fortunate to have the Do Good Institute which is pioneering work in the philanthropy and nonprofit sector, and the Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise (CPPPE) which is doing so with companies – both focusing on the interaction between these sectors and public policy. We also have exciting cross-boundary work in very different substantive areas happening at CISSM, the Center for Global Sustainability (CGS) and the SAFE Center.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, we must bring all these pieces together in a more systematic and intentional way through robust “multi-stakeholder” or “inter-sector” governance. The different pieces of the governance equation are crucial – whether government at the federal, state or local level, the private sector, or philanthropy and nonprofit sectors – but what is most important is how they come together. To address today’s complex challenges we must make government work, but even more, we need to make governance work. At SPP we are increasingly focusing on the governance ecosystem, both in the classroom and through our growing “experiential” course selections for both graduate and undergraduates. And we aren’t just training students for future governance work, we are getting in the boiler room and doing it now. We should aspire to nothing less than to define in word and deed the new paradigm of 21st Century governance.
Meeting the governance imperative is the work of our generation, and it will be ever more so for that of future generations of SPP students.