What are the patterns of civic engagement that we need for a healthy representative democracy? What is required of the citizens represented—individually and collectively—for it to be successful? What, if anything, can philanthropy do to help cultivate this kind of citizenship, when by its nature it is diffuse and subject to myriad social factors that encourage or work to undermine it?
We have been wrestling with these questions from the outset of the Madison Initiative. Last week they were again brought to my attention as I read Marc Dunkelman’s compelling new book, The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.
I won’t be able do justice here to the full sweep of Dunkelman’s creative synthesis, in which he brings together many varied strands of wisdom— from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy to Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort and Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, to sample just a few. All the while Dunkelman is weaving in his own powerful insights.
At the heart of Dunkelman’s argument is the importance of what he terms “middle ring” relationships. These can be defined in part by what they are not —neither the “inner ring” relationships of one’s nuclear family and close friends, nor the “outer ring” relationships that are “passing to transactional,” a result of “a single shared interest or experience.” By this he means professional acquaintances, but also social media connections with far flung people who happen to share your passion for, say, Patsy Cline, the Detroit Tigers, Friedrich Hayek, or unstinting environmentalism.
Middle ring relationships, in contrast, are “familiar but not intimate, friendly but not close.” Think here of the talkative neighbors who always buttonhole you when you are walking your dog, fellow members of the Kiwanis Club, the parents of your children’s classmates with whom you arrange the weekly carpool, the “regulars” you have lunch with in the cafeteria at work, the other members in your National Guard unit, and the guys who play in your standing Tuesday night pickup basketball game, etc.
If you’re having trouble identifying with these examples, you may be seeing Dunkelman’s point by now. Our middle ring relationships are atrophying, and the social consequences are profound. “Today, if you don’t know your neighbors—if you’ve transferred social capital away from the middle rings—your political frame of reference is limited both to the people you love most and the legions who, through outer-ring networks, share your point of view.”
The problem is that middle ring relationships have, from the era of Alexis de Tocqueville’s townships to that of Jane Jacob’s front stoops, formed the basis for our political community. Middle ring relationships are where we are most likely to rub elbows with people who may not always agree with us yet we cannot avoid, where we come to appreciate that at times you need to go along to get along, where we learn informally to lead—and to follow. These relationships are primary school for citizenship, and we’ve become truants.
Dunkelman connects the dots between the demise of the middle ring and the mounting problems of our nation’s politics. “Absent the fundamental ability to understand those on the other side of a cultural or political divide, it’s almost impossible to stomach the possibility that “our” representative in Washington might be the one collaborating with people who represent a different flavor of constituent.” The art of compromise—as essential to governing in the halls of Congress as it is in city halls in Paducah or Poughkeepsie —has thus become a dirty word. “The institutions that frame American society no longer line up with the routines of our daily lives.”
To his credit, Dunkelman doesn’t leave us with pat answers or solutions to this dilemma. He doesn’t suggest that we can somehow go back to the patterns of citizenship that Tocqueville or Jacobs observed and celebrated. Rather, he challenges us to adapt our institutions to the social changes that have been disrupting them, and to explore ways in which we can put our evolving networks and relationships in harness so that we can better govern ourselves. Friends, neighbors, citizens: We’ve got our work cut out for us!
The last couple of weeks have been less than auspicious for the first branch of government. Whatever your partisan views, you are likely to have been dismayed by the congressional response (or really, the lack thereof) on the child migrant issue in the run-up to the August recess. House GOP leaders, after suing President Obama for selectively enforcing provisions of the Affordable Care Act (provisions they had themselves opposed), effectively punted on the crisis on our southern border, arguing that the President could and should take unilateral action to address it.
In another telling commentary on inter-branch power dynamics, we also had confirmation the CIA has been spying on the Senate committee responsible for overseeing it—this despite the flat denials CIA Director John Brennan had previously offered. Yet Brennan has neither resigned nor been fired—indeed, President Obama has since declared that his CIA director has his full confidence.
Things have descended to the point where the New York Times felt obliged to run a multi-media feature, Measuring the 113th Congress’s Futility, that intermixes telling quotes from feuding partisans with “worst ever” data points on declining legislative productivity, worsening polarization, and plummeting public confidence.
However damning, the trend lines cited by the Times overlook perhaps the most damaging effects of hyper-partisanship and the congressional dysfunction it produces: the inadvertent but nonetheless steady ceding of power and authority from Congress to the executive. When Congress is so sharply and evenly divided, it cannot act effectively—whether it be to develop a needed legislative response to a pressing issue, to oversee the executive branch, or—not least—to ward off encroachments against its constitutional powers. All the while, and in stark contrast, the unitary executive has both the means and the motivation to press on.
Thus President Obama, who just last fall had forsworn unilateral action on the child migrant issue on the grounds that we are a nation of laws, is now preparing to take it. Progressives gleeful at the prospect of a President Obama having a free hand to selectively enforce and reset the nation’s immigration laws might ask themselves whether they would as pleased with the prospect of a different president, perhaps one with the last name of Romney or for that matter Cruz, having the same license. Dismissing this thought experiment as an unlikely hypothetical is to whistle past the constitutional graveyard. As Ross Douthat and the Washington Post have pointed out, we are fast approaching a dangerous crossroads. Careening through it in the way that seems likely to occur may yield short term political advantage to the President and his party, but at the expense of the long run health of the Constitution.
These developments brought to mind remarks I was privileged to hear three weeks ago from former Representative Lee Hamilton as he accepted a distinguished service award from the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. Acknowledging the current sorry state of the institution to which he had dedicated his career, Hamilton began by noting that “Congress needs help.” He went on to observe that “over the past several decades, the balance of power in our system is shifting decisively to the executive branch. One has to ask how far down that path we can go, and still have representative democracy.” In Hamilton’s view, “we should not give up on the separation of powers.” The goal should be “not to weaken the presidency, but to strengthen the Congress—and to get a better balance of government power. Our system functions best when we have a strong President and a strong Congress.”
The most striking part of Hamilton’s speech was his peroration, in which he argued that friends of representative democracy need to come to the defense of Congress. The president, the public, and the media certainly aren’t going to do it; nor are the members themselves, who notoriously have incentives to run against the body in which they serve. “We have to step up, to make clear the importance of the role of the Congress in a representative democracy…Our political leaders confront a terribly difficult political environment. The country is both deeply and evenly divided along partisan and ideological lines. Making this huge, diverse, complicated country work, resolving our differences, building a consensus behind a solution is tough going. Representative democracy is one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. But no one ever said it was going to be easy.”
Indeed, it is inevitably messy, difficult, and at times maddening. But friends of representative democracy need to keep pointing out that, however inconvenient it may be in the short term, in the long run it beats the alternative. We also need to redouble our efforts to find ways in which Congress can carry out the central functions our system of government assigns to it. Congress needs our help.
In recent weeks Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution has been sending me quotes from James Q. Wilson’s 1962 book, The Amateur Democrat: Club Politics in Three Cities. And I in turn have been sending these missives on, like precious snippets of political science samizdat, to other friends and colleagues, noting that, when it comes to diagnosing the root causes of our current political quandaries, we are all struggling to climb the mountain, only to arrive at the peak and find a sign indicating that Wilson was here more than 50 years ago. Rather than keep circulating Wilson’s wisdom on the QT, I thought I’d share some telling pieces of it in this post so that we could all wrestle with its implications.
Wilson’s book looked at the contest between what he termed “amateur” Democratic Party reformers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and their rivals—the political professionals in the party machines from whom they were seeking to wrest power. What distinguished amateurs from professionals was not their relative seriousness or dedication but rather a reliance on what Wilson termed purposive incentives instead of the material interests that had long fueled American politics in the form of patronage jobs for the party faithful, pork barrel spending, and the perquisites of office.
“The amateur believes that political parties ought to be programmatic, internally democratic, and largely free of reliance on material incentives such as patronage. A programmatic party would offer a real policy alternative to the opposition party. A vote for the party would be as much, or more, a deliberate vote for a clear and specific set of proposals, linked by a common point of view or philosophy of government, as it would be a vote for a set of leaders. The programmatic basis of one party would, to some extent, compel an expression of purpose by the opposing party and thus lead to the realignment of both parties nationally, with liberals in one and conservatives in the other.”
While Wilson was writing in 1962 about amateur reformers in the Democratic Party, he was really writing about a new mode of politics cutting across parties. Indeed, as he acknowledged in his preface to subsequent editions of the book, the Goldwater campaign of 1964, with Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley in the vanguard, marked “the greatest victory of the amateur spirit in recent American politics.”
The problem with the amateur spirit is that, for all of its moral clarity (if not superiority) relative to a world governed by cigar-chomping political bosses, its pervasive spread in the ensuing decades has created new and more intractable problems of governance in the United States. As Wilson prophesied all too well, with these developments “the need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one’s party from the opposition along policy lines will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.”
The amateur spirit, and the disdain it has for compromise and trade-offs, is not a suitable approach for governance in a continental republic that intentionally encompasses a tremendous diversity of interests and whose core constitutional arrangements are designed to separate, check, balance, and decentralize power. But, for better or worse, we are all amateurs now; we certainly are governed by them. The question is, given where we are, what we can do about it? Sadly we don’t have James Q. Wilson with us today to help us sort this out. We all will need to figure this one out ourselves. We welcome your ideas!
Last week we announced the formal launch of the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative, our effort to help support and improve the health of representative democracy in the United States. You might be wondering: why Madison? Let me walk you through how we arrived at this name and why we feel it is especially fitting.
When we started planning this work a year ago, we referred to it as the Democracy Initiative, only to learn that several progressive organizations were already using that name to describe their collaboration on democracy reform. So we started calling it the Democratic Process Initiative. To this, some of our conservative friends pointed out that the phrasing could inadvertently suggest that our work was somehow aligned with the Democratic Party. As we prepared for our formal launch, it was clear that we needed to put some more thought into what we would call the effort.
All the while we were continuing to sharpen the focus of our plans, zeroing in on Congress and the central role it is called upon to play in our system of government: representing, aggregating, weighing, and reconciling different and often sharply opposed beliefs, ideas, and agendas. But as our former Communications Director Eric Brown pointed out, a name like “the Representative Government Initiative” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, much less leave people wanting to hear more.
In our brainstorming sessions, as we talked about the ideas, values, and dynamics we wanted to shore up, we kept invoking James Madison’s name. He famously spoke to the inevitability of faction and partisanship in a free society and the corresponding imperative to rein in their excesses; to the importance of a system of representation that would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens;” and to the need to rely on ambition to check ambition, thereby “supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.”
Most importantly, the extended sphere and institutional complexity of Madison’s system of government were meant to foster precisely the kind of deliberation, negotiation, and compromise that we believe are in increasingly short supply. As Jonathan Rauch observed recently in “Rescuing Compromise,” his must-read essay in National Affairs, “Madison understood something that many political commentators forget: Politicians, like other people, compromise because they have to, not because they want to. So he modeled a system that would compel them to bargain.”
We also observed how Madison’s own leadership exemplified this ethic of compromise. He entered the Constitutional Convention seeking to realize the Virginia Plan that he had worked out in advance. However, during the ensuing negotiations, he came to accept the need for a design that departed from it in ways he had profoundly opposed, a compromise solution for which he nevertheless became the leading advocate. Likewise, after initially arguing against the call for a separate bill of rights, Madison recognized that it would be required to secure the ratification of the Constitution and subsequently worked to shepherd the necessary amendments through the first Congress.
The more we talked about it, the more we collectively converged on the Madison Initiative as the name that, in a nutshell, best captured what we are trying to do. Having aimed high with our branding, we now have our work cut out for us to make good on it. Onward!
I was recently browsing in the stacks at Feldman’s, a used book store on the El Camino Real in Menlo Park, when to my good fortune I discovered an original edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defenders. I bought the book and read it that same evening. As I did so I found myself wondering what guidance Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential American theologian and religious leader of his time, might give to church leaders today with respect to their role in supporting democracy in the U.S.
The book contains a set of lectures that Niebuhr gave at Stanford University in 1944. He sought to come to democracy’s defense as it was fighting for its very existence around the globe. But, as he noted in his foreword, he felt obliged to offer, “a more realistic vindication” of this form of government in its time of extreme trial, one that was not unsteadily based on “the excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and of human history with which the democratic credo has been historically associated.”
Niebuhr was a realist, not a pessimist. He acknowledged that “a free society requires some confidence in the ability of men to reach tentative and tolerable adjustments between their competing interests and to arrive at some common notions of justice that transcend all partial interests.” Yet the case for democracy could not rest on optimism alone: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Fast forward to the present and we can see that Christians are increasingly bringing their faith into the public square of our democracy. Name the issue – immigration, health care, the environment, etc. – and you will almost invariably find Christian churches and advocates participating in the political debate, in many instances on opposing sides of it.
This heightened and diverse engagement helpfully underscores the plurality of political views that can be held and expressed within the Christian tradition. At the same time, such disagreements, which can be quite sharp given members of the same faith are arguing over what it entails, point to the depth of divisions among and even within churches. This has the unfortunate consequence of pulling them into the maw of the polarization that is exacerbating rather than reconciling the divisions in our society.
This leads me to wonder: over and above any particular policy they feel compelled to advance, might some Christian churches and their leaders rally to the defense of representative democracy itself, as a form of government that merits and needs their support? As part of our philanthropic efforts to address the problem of polarization, we are beginning to explore this question with religious and lay leaders.
Note that I am not talking here simply about encouraging more respectful and civil discourse, undergirded by the humbling recognition that all people and parties see through a glass darkly. To be sure, if this way of participating in politics was consistently practiced by the seven of ten Americans who profess to be Christians, it would make a huge difference in the tenor of our public debate.
But this may be insufficient. Given the accelerating polarization, and the resulting decline in the legitimacy of our representative institutions, the real question is whether Christian churches and their leaders will actively support those institutions as good things in and of themselves, irrespective of the particular policy outcomes they are producing, much as Niebuhr felt obliged to do in World War II. If he was right, and human nature makes democracy both possible and necessary, it would seem that such a defense would be just as warranted and timely today.
What is your take on this issue? What might I be missing or misconstruing? I’d welcome your feedback on how we should proceed with this line of inquiry.
We were pleased to help support the work of the Commission. It was a diverse, carefully balanced, bipartisan group comprised of former members of Congress (including Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott), officials who served at the highest levels of the Clinton and Bush administrations, former state and local government officials, journalists, academics, and leaders from business and civil society.
Through a series of public town halls and private discussions over the past 18 months, the Commission developed 65 recommendations on a wide array of topics, covering campaign and election reforms, changes in how Congress operates, and ways to engage more citizens in public service.
I plan to take up the specifics of the report in future posts. What I do want to do here is to acknowledge—and respond to, if not pre-empt—any frustration on the part of those idealists who, after scanning the report, might be inclined to think it falls short of the sweeping changes that would seem to be necessary if we are going to quell the political convulsions in Washington.
As Tom Daschle observed in introducing the report at an event in Washington this week, “our goal from the very beginning was to take the ideal and the practical and to strike the best balance that we could between them.” The practical end of the spectrum was defined by what experienced leaders from across the political spectrum could and would agree upon. Hence some of the zoology that can be observed in the report—some dogs not barking, some horses being traded, perhaps even an ostrich or two putting its head in the sand.
Welcome to politics. This is a deeply and evenly divided country. Control over our government institutions is continually and intensely contested. The electoral and institutional processes that are the landscape for this contest inevitably become caught up in it. Any changes that stand a chance of being enacted and sustained have to work for both parties. Those of us who are partisans on one side or the other may not like that reality, but we need to accept it or we can expect to accomplish nothing.
Others may object to the report for a different reason: namely, that for all of the apparent compromises embodied in the recommendations, many of them still face very long odds of being realized. Here too we need to temper our expectations. The recommendations in this report have the sturdy and practical virtues characteristic of hard-won agreements. Success on even a few of them would amount to real progress. Let’s say only a third of the recommendations get translated into actual changes. In political reform, as in baseball, hitting .333, failing twice as often as you succeed, is a still very good batting average. Those looking for better odds need to take up a different game.
Our friend and grantee Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution recently offered the telling observation that “congressional primaries are the neglected stepchildren of American elections.” She noted that, for the most part, journalists don’t cover congressional primaries and scholars don’t research them. Most citizens can’t be bothered with them: historically, turnout rates among potential voters hover around 5% in mid-term primary elections.
Moreover, we know that the voters who do turn out for primaries are much more partisan and ideological than the vast majority who don’t, giving rise to the reasonable conjecture that congressional primary dynamics are linked to polarization. For those of us concerned about the health of Congress, you can see how congressional primaries are a problem.
The dynamics around California’s new “top two” primary election, which was held Tuesday, may help move questions about congressional primaries—how they are structured, which candidates run in them, how they run, and, not least, how voters participate in them—more onto the center stage of American politics.
In the top two system, which was first used in California in 2012, all candidates from all parties standing for a particular office run against each other. Voters can vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation (or lack thereof)—either their own or their preferred candidate’s. The two candidates getting the most votes (and only those two) advance to the general election in November.
Can the top two primary reverse or at least alleviate polarization? Last fall, at the height of the government shut down, pundits pointed to California’s primary innovation as a model for the nation. Meanwhile, leading political scientists have found little evidence that the extent to which primaries are open or closed has much to do with polarization, and California should be no exception to this rule.
I think the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Certainly the dynamics are shifting in some districts. Based on Tuesday’s results, at least seven out of California’s 53 House races will have candidates of the same party running against each other in November. For example, in CA-17, in the heart of Silicon Valley, two Democrats will be facing off, with the liberal incumbent Mike Honda defending his seat against a well-funded centrist challenger, Ro Khanna. To take another example, in CA-4, in the rural central Sierra, the incumbent Tea Party Republican Tom McClintock will have to fend off Art Moore, a West Pointer and Iraq War veteran running as a more moderate (though still conservative) Republican. In each instance, the challenger will be able to appeal not only to his wing of the party but also to the independents and voters from the other party.
I have also been struck by what I have heard in conversations with several California political hands, people running for office, anticipating running, or managing and funding the candidacies of others. To a person they see the top two primary as a big deal, one that will drive central tendencies in the state’s politics. They haven’t thought much about the idealism of the reformers or the analytical skepticism of the political scientists; they simply recognize that the rules of the game they are playing have shifted and they are preparing new strategies accordingly.
It is also too soon to tell what difference the top two will make. It remains a relatively new electoral institution. We should expect it will take a few electoral cycles for parties and their networks, candidates for office, their advisors and funders, and voters to get the hang of it.
As a grant maker endeavoring to be strategic, it is all too tempting for us to use engineering and mechanical metaphors in assessing systems change—e.g., if this component is adjusted, the machine will begin working in a different way. We have to keep reminding ourselves that gardening might be a better source of metaphors for how we think about and assess changes in the political system—they need to be seeded, well cared for, and then, depending on weather conditions, may or may not bear fruit. We also need to emulate the gardener’s patience—because none of this happens overnight.
How can philanthropy support work that leads to better public policy when longstanding mechanisms for creating that policy have broken down? That’s the question Steven Teles, Heather Hurlburt and Mark Schmitt tackled last week in the Stanford Social Innovation Review article titled “Philanthropy in a time of Polarization.” The authors had helped us organize a conference on this topic in January 2013; their article is an elaboration of the issues that surfaced in that discussion and their ongoing reflection about whether, when, and how philanthropy can shape public policy. They offer a bracing assessment that should give most foundations plenty to think about—it certainly has in our case.
Their premise is that the traditional operating model for philanthropy—funding development of fact-based, apolitical solutions, which can then be advanced by bipartisan coalitions—no longer works. “Partisan politics and ideology have become much more closely aligned, leaving less room for maneuver between the two parties and greater opportunity for an ideologically unified party to block change. Science, disinterested analysis, and establishment institutions can no longer close the partisan divide.”
Teles, Hurlburt, and Schmitt note that the traditional operating model developed in what was, in retrospect, an anomalously depolarized “golden age” in the mid-20th Century. After tracing the rise and fall of this outlying period, they observe that we have now returned to the type of polarization that has characterized the U.S. for much of its history—and that it “is now at a level comparable to that of other advanced democracies.”
If they have their history and comparative politics right, and I think they do, then polarization is neither a trend that can be reversed nor a problem that can be solved; rather, it is a predicament with which we need to learn how to cope.
I have been particularly intrigued with the authors’ proposed alternative to the bipartisan problem-solving that philanthropy has long focused on supporting:
Some of the most creative advocacy work currently underway builds cross-party coalitions that are anchored not by centrists, but by figures with unquestioned ideological credibility. We call this style of advocacy ‘transpartisan,’ because it recognizes that the critical political gatekeepers are no longer ideologically neutral actors at the center, but the authorizers of ideological orthodoxy at the poles.
Examples of transpartisan coalitions that have been able to impact public policy in notable ways include the efforts of conservative fiscal hanwks, evangelicals, and libertarians to join forces with progressive critics of the racial inequities of mass incarceration to advance criminal justice reform. A similar coalition of strange bedfellows from left and right has come together to check defense spending. And Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, the bête noire of so many on the left for his determination to shrink government to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub, is proving to be a shrewd ally in their collective and ongoing push for immigration reform.
In talking with fellow funders, grantees, and observers in the field about the idea of transpartisanship, I’ve often heard “that’s nothing new” or “we are already doing that,” responses that suggest this is a jargoned-up reprise of the perennial quest for bipartisanship. But these dismissals gloss over the brute fact right in front of us—the complete erosion of the ideological overlap between the Democratic and Republican delegations in Congress, i.e., the middle ground that once served as the seedbed for bipartisan compromise. Such responses also fail to come to grips with the issue-specific, time-limited, and thereby fleeting if not fickle nature of transpartisan coalitions.
To be sure, it remains an open question whether transpartisanship can really suffice as an alternative to bipartisan problem-solving when it comes to aligning politics and policy in the U.S., especially when the institutions of government continue to be controlled by party leaders and majorities actively seeking to prevent any form of productive work across the aisle.
We will continue to explore the possibilities (and limits) of transpartisanship, not least because we want to understand if there is something foundations can do to underwrite new forms of infrastructure and networks that might be needed to support this emergent way of making policy.
In the meantime—and to help inform this inquiry—what do you make of transpartisanship as an alternative framework for solving our nation’s collective action problem? What is its potential, and what questions does it raise for you?
In last week’s post I described the premortem that our team had worked through with some key outside colleagues and partners. The goal of the exercise was to surface potential blind spots and shortcomings in our strategy at the outset of the democracy initiative so that we could address them before they became big issues.
In this week’s post, to give you a feel for what the premortem revealed about “what went wrong” with our strategy, I wanted to share some verbatim comments written on post-it notes during the session.
Here for example are some observations regarding challenging dynamics in the political system:
“Even when enacted, reforms make no difference. It’s the [Steve] Teles thesis: so long as the mobilized political elite is polarized, they can (and do) capture or co-opt any reform to preserve their advantages.”
“Mobilizing moderates pushes them further to the poles”
“Polarization has continued to spread from Congress down to the states, making it unrealistic to think we can attain state-level reform”
“Citizenry is becoming polarized but our work fails to address; approach is too elite”
“Millennials drop out / civic engagement collapses”
“Journalism biz model collapses = no watchdog function and decreased citizen engagement”
There is clearly a lot here for us to chew on, especially with respect to the relationship between the civic engagement (or lack thereof) of citizens at the grassroots level and the quality of representation in Congress.
Even more telling were the challenges the group flagged regarding capacity—of our grantees, the philanthropic sector, and ourselves:
“Spread bet approach will not lead to sufficient grantee or strategy cohesion so that the sum is greater than the parts”
“Even if experimental grants show something works, the pathways and infrastructure needed for scaling them enough to gain traction are not plausible”
“Funding (writ large) has increased, but it is not aligned and is exacerbating polarization”
“Funders can’t agree on anything!”
“The Initiative lacked the flexibility to pivot to new priorities and missed an opportunity to support the ‘true’ solution to polarization”
“No anchor grantees emerge b/c we are too busy to proactively help build the field”
What was interesting about this bundle of capacity issues was that the sub-set of the group we had charged with developing the positive, high impact scenario had identified several developments that were effectively mirror images of the “failure“ group on this dimension, e.g.:
“Marshaled political scientists at leading academic centers to focus work on solving key problems of democracy and they have firmed up what is possible”
“Strong evidence for success in building capacity and creating ‘fields’ in current ‘gap’ areas”
“Successful grants that strengthen and grow early stage orgs / programs”
“Developed productive alliances with foundations on right and left concerned about health of democracy”
“Initiative brings and creates more collaboration w/in phil. sector in the same strategic directions; goal of shared tools, taxonomy, spirit is met with enthusiasm.”
“Took advantage of blue chip developmental evaluators to learn and course correct our strategy (and inform field along the way)”
I thus came away from this exercise determined to focus more clearly on questions of institutional capacity—for current and potential grantees, to be sure, but also for the community of funders and, not least, ourselves.
I cannot begin to fully summarize a half-day’s work in a few bullets, but I wanted to give you a sense for at least some of the issues we are talking about. Feel free to refer back to this post in three years to review what we got right and what we may have missed or over-emphasized. I know I will! In the meantime, please add your input to our premortem in the comments box below.
Yesterday I holed up with 14 colleagues in a non-descript conference room here at the foundation to conduct what ended up being a very messy but nonetheless illuminating autopsy. We performed it on our initiative to support the health of democracy in the U.S. Now I know what you may be thinking: “Wait, you guys were just getting started with that line of grantmaking, and you’ve killed it off already?”
Well, not exactly. The autopsy we performed was a prospective one, a philanthropic “premortem,” if you will, that had us looking back to assess what happened with our work from a vantage point in the future; in this case, March of 2017. That is when we are scheduled to go back to our Board with an assessment of how our initial plans have unfolded.
The point of a premortem is to break through the bias of unwarranted optimism. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has observed that, “most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters overconfidence.”
If the “optimistic bias” is true for most people, it is especially the case for those of us working in philanthropy. Our grand strategies may have us walking around naked, but nobody is inclined to tell us we are not wearing any clothes.
As described by decision scientist Gary Klein, a premortem is “done at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the ‘patient’ has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members' task is to generate plausible reasons for the project's failure.”
By stipulating that something has already failed, you free people up to express doubts and critiques they have been harboring but did not feel at liberty to express. You unleash the devil’s advocates.
We did our pre-mortem with a bit of a positive twist, as recommended by Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao in their new book Scaling up Excellence. Half of our group was charged with telling our board in three years that “this Initiative is proving to be a disappointing failure, and we should wind it down.” They had to develop a concrete and plausible scenario for what went wrong—and why—between now and then.
At the same time, in order to stimulate debate, and to identify where failure or success might hinge on the same considerations, we charged the other half of the group with fleshing out the details of an alternative scenario, one that had them telling the board that “we have made exciting progress with this Initiative, and we should extend and expand our investment.”
By the end of the day, these two teams had wallpapered the conference room with their post-it notes and summaries on sheets of butcher paper. We are now in the process of reviewing and digesting these artifacts and our notes from the ensuing discussion. I’ll come back in next week’s post with the key findings of the premortem and the implications for our plans.