Government, for the people

Where has it gone?

What is the purpose of government? Abraham Lincoln said it so eloquently, “Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth.” A simple thought but a difficult challenge for any country to sustain. We may be losing the battle unable to find a common public interest.

When I first started my consulting work over 20 years ago, I intentionally gave it the name “In the Public Interest.”  I thought this was appropriate and it would challenge me to only work with organizations which demonstrated a public commitment to the community.  While I believe I have stayed true to my vision for the most part, I increasingly find it difficult to manage a variety of interests often driven by a government which seems to be more concerned with self-preservation!

Let’s start with state government which is often overlooked but a very important part of our lives. We have a governor and a state legislature that has eliminated money for the neediest in our communities. This has been in the name of balancing the budget. There has been a decrease in money for public education, mental health, special education, transportation, economic development and almost every area of community interest. And for what purpose? I would suggest that government preservation has become the primary purpose and not what Abraham Lincoln suggested.

The latest debate on the privatization of alcoholic beverages is more about the role of government than the public benefit.  Every spring, the governor and the state legislature fight to develop a budget that is more about competing interests and preservation than a common public interest.

At the federal level of government, the budget fight or recent fiscal cliff conversation, took place last year and into this year it continues.  The theme again is preservation over common good. President Obama, to his credit, is attempting to insert the important public issues of gun control and immigration reform.  But, the nature of these public conversations take on the same character as the fight over the financial competing interests.  Immigration reform becomes a discussion about securing our borders versus a pathway to citizenship. Gun control is a debate over 2nd amendment rights versus protecting our children and communities from gun violence.

Local government is often waiting for state and federal government to send down the money so that it can engage in the same debate over self-preservation as opposed to public interest. I do work with early childhood education and education for out of school youth.  You would believe that these are part of the same public interest of education.  But, government leads the conversation toward self-preservation over the search for public interest. Of course, they always do this in the name of a balanced budget. The community tends to take on the character of the government but with some level of tension and frustration.

The challenge for our communities is a focus on seeking shared self-interests that will lead to a common, public interest. We can do this and take back our government and live Lincoln’s great idea of  “a government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Happy birthday Mr. President. 

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