Why is innovation impossible in politics and its sidekick, government? When did we see the last new idea, novel approach or bold proposal? The major accomplishment of the Bush administration — tax cuts — hardly qualifies. Nor does the major accomplishment of the Obama administration, which was based on ideas from the 1930s — entitlements — with some more recent ideas from the ’80s and ’90s: a mandate to buy health insurance to spread risk. (In fairness, there are some innovative cost-containment and quality provisions buried in the bill, but the thrust of the health-care legislation was hardly ground-breaking.)
This stale approach to problem-solving is stifling America. From education to our economy to our defense, almost all our institutions are in need of re-invention.
So what's holding us back? There are three main obstacles. First, our democracy itself with its exquisite system of checks and balances. It is designed to put the brakes on rapid, autocratic change. This is still essential: The despot rules with bold ideas. But one useful reform, which would not undermine this important system, would be the elimination of the Senate's filibuster. It is interesting to note that in a lengthy exit interview, this is precisely the change outgoing Rep. Barney Frank recommended to break Washington's logjam.
Second, the entire political consultancy industry makes innovative ideas almost impossible to gain currency. All political debate today is shaped by polling — surveys, focus groups and ad testing. By its very nature, innovation, which is disruptive and threatening, doesn't poll well. When Henry Ford was asked whether market research helped him invent the automobile, he said no: "People would have wanted a faster horse." Innovation is about re-imagining the future, not rumbling around to find a more comfortable seat in the present.
The reform here would be to do much less polling and much more imagining. I've never understood why campaigns don't expand their research capacity to include an exhaustive review of experimental ideas — often at the state and local level — that might inspire new approaches. Or why candidates, particularly those like Mitt Romney, who have the time and money, don't surround themselves with more innovative thinking and create idea factories.
Once in office, creative thinking becomes almost impossible. Henry Kissinger once said that whatever intellectual capital a leader has coming into office will be spent and not replenished during government service. Not sure how we can fix this, but I have a small idea. Why not establish a Library of Innovation, a congressionally-chartered repository of new ideas and their practical application to areas of national concern? The "librarians" could be appointed jointly by the Congress and the president for their experience in innovative thinking and implementation across many industries and non-profits.
The final barrier is we the people, and our representatives in the press. First, the press. James Carville once told me that on the front page, the press tells us how everything is going to hell, and on the editorial page it trashes every idea to fix it. The press needs to do a much better job investigating not only failure, but also success.
And, finally, us. Politicians keep feeding us the thin gruel that passes for ideas these days because we keep eating it. It is as if our palates are stuck on the same boring tastes. The lack of innovation in politics and government is not just a supply problem; it's a demand problem. We routinely settle for too little.