Sunday, March 15, 2009

Political Will

A few weeks ago on 60 Minutes, the show did a rare interview with the Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke. It was a good interview with some helpful insights. But the most telling insight of all was this comment that is taken from MSNBC's reporting of the interview, "Asked about the biggest potential dangers now, Bernanke suggested a lack of "political will" to solve the financial crisis."

This word is very popular these days and so I thought it would be worth taking a look at it. The more I have worked in nonprofit leadership circles and on partnership efforts, I have realized that this issue of political will is crucial to success.

In a paper submitted to the 2008 Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association, political will is defined as follows:

"Our ideal-type definition of political will requires that a sufficient set of political actors with a common understanding of a particular problem on the public agenda genuinely intends to support a commonly perceived, potentially effective policy solution. This definition includes four different components, which we deem necessary conditions:

(1) A sufficient set of political actors

(2) With a common understanding of a particular problem on the public agenda

(3) Genuinely intends to support

(4) A commonly perceived, potentially effective policy solution."

Just as the government is struggling with a "lack of political will," I think that many partnership efforts among ministries are dealing with a similar challenge. This definition takes a very abstract concept and really helps us to look at our associations, partnerships and organizations and consider whether we have garnered the political will to make the changes necessary to innovate and survive in these challenging times. Lets take each one and apply it to the nonprofit arena:

(1) A sufficient set of political actors
These words imply that the right people are at the table in order to process the challenge ahead. It also implies that there are enough people at the table to affect change. When you face some of your great challenges in your settings, are the right people at the table? The right people will be those who are influencers, who have a significant stake in the problem and those who represent your internal constituencies.

(2) With a common understanding of a particular problem on the public agenda
Do those gathering to process and consider your challenge have a common and solid base of information on which to begin discussions? So many times these discussions are punctuated with a lack of basic understanding. But that is the fault of the convener of the meeting as well as the participant. Think about what you can do to bring people to the table with a common understanding of the problem you are wanting to solve.

(3) Genuinely intends to support
One of our greatest mistakes is that so many times we sit down at the table to work out a solution when a group present does not support the basic premise or issue at hand. Now we should not take this line of the definition to mean that we need a group of "yes-people" bobbing their heads in a meeting. The way I read this is that those who gather must all agree that the problem is real and that a solution is needed through this effort. If all parties agree to that, then the compromise and planning will take place to come up with a direction. But if there are groups of people who attend without any expectation of supporting the initiative, then political will cannot be achieved.

(4) A commonly perceived, potentially effective policy solution."
This is the toughest part. As I read this definition, for political will to be exerted there has to be an understood solution presented ahead of your deliberations which can bring understanding and general support to your discussions. This last piece involves a lot of homework by the sponsor or champion of the process. Before a group can be brought together to discuss options and build political will, the homework to define in broad strokes what the possible solutions are must take place. This seems backwards. So many times we bring people together with some basic facts and challenges and ask the group to design the solution. But what I have found every time is that a group does not have the time, knowledge or skills to define solutions in a meeting. This must be done ahead of time (with interaction with others) and presented for crafting, modifying and compromise. In this instance, the pre-meeting homework is critical. Unless you have defined the potential solutions and given your participants the chance to interact, they will not be ready to coalesce behind a solution.

So many times in our nonprofits we ask the wrong people to come to the table, without the key information that would inform their participation, unclear of their support for the general direction and withholding the potential solution that we are considering. This is a recipe for disaster in our innovation efforts.

So lets turn this around positively. What should we do when faced with a major initiative that requires significant political will within our organization or cooperative partnership?

1. We should get those with influence, decision making ability and representative authority at the table.

2. We should make sure that everyone at the table has the background and resources to be knowledgeable about the issue at hand.

3. We should do our footwork and make sure that everyone at the table has a vested interest in a solution and is genuine in their participation.

4. We should bring a proposal to those negotiations based on all the above so that the group can get to work on creating a viable way forward.


JC said...

Spot on! Jon, thanks for this timely piece it's exactly where we're at with our business and it's place of influence in our industry. We have a big gathering this weekend down in NC and this helped me to bring some clarity in how to prepare for our time together down there.

MA said...

Absolutely true-- great job on this one Jon. Thanks for all your hard work on these posts.

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...

JC, I'm so glad this was helpful. Anything you can do to prepare people and the efforts will go a long way towards improving the outcome.

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...

MA, my pleasure. These issues are so key to our accomplishment of the great commission!

Samuel said...

Just two thoughts Jon on your excellent post. There are also issues of building an effective coalition with the non-formal influencers at the table. Often, times they are some of the most influential people within an organization. Separately, to bring innovation into the larger society there are 'overlapping' networks which can move things forward. Think of how the cultural creators agenda work. They don't have all the right people sit at the table, but they are influential. So how does 'political will' work in this type of arrangement?

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...


Thanks for the question. I think that we need to differentiate between influential forces that act on our world/culture and a group that comes together to accomplish a task. As you pointed out, political will as I talked about it is focused on formal structures and processes.

However, much of the influence today comes from informal influences that are brought about by loose networks that share a common cause. I think in these situations the cause drives the decisions and the direction.

Where in the more formal structures many times the structure itself recieves much of the focus. When an existing system is at the center of power, then self-preservation is a huge factor. Because of this, political will is necessary to overcome the system and make change.

Hope that helps.