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Hey Washington – Solve a Problem, Any Problem, Please!

February 21, 2010

It seems, each day, as we watch or read the news our frustration with the government only increases.  Republicans blame democrats – democrats blame republicans.  The Executive branch blames Congress – Congress blames the Executive branch.  Government truly illustrates for every argument there are two sides.  Of course, that illustration does not mean either side is right.

What all this finger-pointing and blaming each other fails to accomplish is solving problems.  As a nation, we sure have our share, it would seem a better strategy to stake out a position on a few and solve them.  Pointing this out is not rocket science, still it is the one thing our government seems incapable of accomplishing and it prevents them from accomplishing anything at all.

Part of our government’s inefficiency comes in deciding which problems to address first; no one is happy when their unique issue is set aside for one deemed a higher priority.  Elected officials find themselves involved in a constant popularity contest where its better to look good than have your sleeves rolled up working.  By not taking a stance, they seek to alienate no one, instead they enfranchise no one.

A few years ago, I was teaching a friend’s son to sail.  As we approached the dock, it is the custom of people to lend a hand in tying up, I told my young friend which person to toss the line to and we were soon docked.  I thanked the man who helped and made introductions.  After that, the young man asked me something like, “if you did not know him, how did you know to throw him the rope?”  I gave him the standard reply I learned years before, “He was the only one with varnish and paint on his clothes, the others looked like they spent their time drinking at the bar, that man knew something about boats.”  That is exactly what we need in  Congress right now, people that know something about work, people that are interested in accomplishing things rather than walking around looking good.

As it stands, simply developing a list for issues will be monumental and require very hard work.  We need to organize and prioritize so we address urgent matters first.  Some may not agree and have a false belief that we can work on all things at once with the efficiency we have focusing on a few.  It’s the same sort of difference between a shotgun blast and a hit from a high-powered rifle.  A shotgun gives a wide coverage; a high-powered rifle has true penetrating power.  Both have their purpose, but for problem solving, it is more important to solve a few issues than to start working on many and solving none.

For the sake of understanding, it helps to look at a simple example.  Each year many Americans die.  According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), here are the top ten reasons in 2006: heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory diseases, accidents, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, influenza & pneumonia, kidney disease, and infections.  A graph known as a Pareto chart best illustrates where we, as a nation, should focus our efforts.  Here is the CDC’s data:

(Click for larger view)

A Pareto chart places items with higher number of occurrences first.  In looking at the chart, it is obvious our greatest effort should be in dealing with heart disease and cancer.  If we solved just these two items, it reduces the death rate by 64%.

The chart does not address the difficulty in solving a particular problem but rather shows where to focus attention.  To be clear, no issue on the list should be ignored, but if the intent is to affect the greatest number of people the fastest, then concentrate on heart disease first, then cancer, then stroke, and so on.  Returning to the shotgun analogy, it would be disproportionate to give kidney disease the same level of attention as cancer. Of course, a person with kidney disease is not necessarily impressed by this argument.

With our two-party system, each party (Democratic and Republican) could easily publish a list of priorities in some form similar to a Pareto chart.  They could let us know where they see the issues we face.  In addition to our understanding their position, it would give them focus.  As it stands, all they do is snipe at each other and end up accomplishing little.  Even if the list lacks the objectivity of the information in the above example, we would gain in the end by either agreeing or disagreeing on the direction our country moves.  Progress, or the lack of progress, can then be measured, people can be held accountable.

Maybe that is the real reason little is accomplished, someone would have to answer for it one way or another.  Now, they have the luxury of blaming the other side for all the worlds’ problems without being specific.  It is time we stop looking at political parties in Congress and see Congress as a whole, judge them by their accomplishments and not their efforts.  To use a phrase from my Navy days, “don’t tell me about the pain, show me the baby!”  It’s time for Congress to show us the baby, it is time to solve a few problems.

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