Transformative implementation of the infrastructure and federal budget bills will take a generation of public service to fix the machinery of government
In December 1964 UC Berkeley student Mario Savio, gave an urgent call to action, “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, … you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, … and you’ve got to make it stop.” The US was ramping up the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement had awakened the country, and uprisings on college campuses were kicking off.
We are in a moment of similar urgency with the Movement for Black Lives organizing for liberation and climate change requiring immediate action. However, this moment needs a different speech: a call for people to fix the machinery of government from inside, not just stop it from outside.
Women of color have led necessary organizing to get seats in the government and make progressive policy. Significant work got us to the point where Congress is considering infrastructure and federal budget bills that could fund rebuilding the country, tackle climate change, upend systemic inequality, and show that democratic government solves problems. Regardless of what passes Congress, transformative implementation also requires significant effort and strategy. For every Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley in Congress, we need hundreds of people, similarly rooted in community, supported, and trained, in public agencies at all levels of government.
A growing body of research shows the lack of trust in government, in part stemming from government’s failures to implement the programs they pass. Without transparency these failures seem like widespread incompetence and malevolence. The reality is complicated; government agencies are a collection of people who are managing technical systems, physical assets, and business processes that are tenuously connected through years of patchwork and under-investment.
The patchwork of systems, digital and analog, creates considerable complexity; a change in one system can cause unintended consequences elsewhere. Inequities and dependency on fossil fuels are hard-coded into existing systems. Transformational change will require maintaining the essential functions of government while implementing new programs and technological systems; changing how we design and build infrastructure; and reshaping the relationships between many communities and government. All while overcoming the human dynamics inside large organizations that slow change.
Changing systems requires leadership, and importantly a lot of project managers. In addition to the proposed Civilian Climate Corps, the public sector must build up its internal capacity. Infrastructure agencies are too reliant on expensive private sector consultants and need permanent talent. Along with climate and equity programs, government agencies need to retool their procurement, human resources, and IT systems and policies. This amount of work will take actively recruiting and training a new generation to join the existing change-makers in all levels of government.
Over 6 years implementing change in a transportation agency, I found the skills I needed the most came less from my PhD in Civil Engineering and more from my experience as a community organizer. Agencies need people with creative technical expertise, and skills and support that come from relationships with their communities.
Transformation requires both the idealistic belief that a better world is possible and the pragmatic understanding of how to make changes work in the world we have right now. The challenge is how to keep your eyes on the former while your daily experience finds you deep in the frustrating weeds of the latter. At the same time, you have to avoid falling into the group ‘fortress mentality’ at public facing agencies where, in the face of constant criticism, employees pull up the proverbial draw-bridge which prevents them from hearing reasonable concerns.
Facing many possible policy changes and real technical challenges, I relied on ongoing conversations with the transit riders I served, in both formal and informal settings, to find and prioritize achievable solutions in the short-term and keep me grounded in the need for change. The same pragmatic empathy guided my relationships with colleagues as we worked to overcome internal bottlenecks.
For institutions to change, people within them have to depart from the accepted norms. This work is a constant balancing act to determine when to compromise and when to keep pushing for the more transformative outcome, knowing you can jeopardize your chance for a position with more power. To navigate this dilemma, I drew my power from my principles, supported by relationships with people impacted by my decisions.
Just like organizing in general, change inside government agencies takes diverse coalitions with clear objectives and the strategies and tactics to achieve them. A cohort of change-makers will need training in how to build power outside existing organizational structures with allies internally, across government entities, and between government and community partners.
The needed transformation in how the government works requires dedicated people inside and outside of government working collaboratively. Instead of the revolving door between government and corporate lobbyists, we need to expand the revolving door between government and community organizations. Experience in both sectors builds the skills, perspectives, and relationships needed. Change-makers need to come from and reflect the lived experiences of the communities most impacted by inaction.
The movements demanding action on climate change and racism have to flow from the streets and legislative bodies deep into the bureaucracy. Addressing the historic challenges of racism, climate change and rebuilding trust in government requires bureaucrats. We need people to put their bodies and minds on the gears and wheels of government and make it work for everyone. And to be successful they will need training and support we don’t currently offer our public sector employees.