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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Congress Has a Problem With Problem-solving

In a recent Blog, I made a passing reference to needing “problem-solving processes and structures built into the operations of the Congress.”  The problem-solving techniques of the 112th Congress (and of so many in the past) have been practically non-existent.  One reason for this is that their very nature of defining problems is terribly flawed. 

In too many instances, problems are manufactured as though they actually exist, but they have been carefully crafted simply to appeal to voters.  For instance, let’s take the “problem” (fast becoming a ‘crisis’) of the federal debt.  How do we know it is a problem of the magnitude touted by Republicans and some Democrats?  Whose opinions have been solicited to determine the extent of this ‘crisis’?  And by the way, what is the problem, anyway?  Who has defined it, and why? 

That’s where we need to start: with the proper definition of a problem (something every Congressperson should know and practice).  Technical and scientific writers like to remind us that we should avoid trying to investigate or write about multiple problems or about broad or overly ambitious problems.  Because scientists deal with problem definition and problem-solving as a way of life, they are apt to be quite precise in their attempts to define a problem and its solution(s).  We can certainly learn a lot from their discipline.  Vague problem definition leads to unsuccessful proposals and vague, unmanageable documents. Naming a topic, or producing a “talking point” is not the same as defining a problem.  However, we are dealing more with social and economic problems when we talk “politics”, so problem statements might seem slightly less precise, but should not be vague, manufactured or misleading.

So let us take some time to examine a six-step process that is fairly common in the discipline of problem-solving.  This particular outline comes from a group known as Richard Chang Associates who apparently conduct training seminars for private businesses and non-profits.  I am suggesting that Congress needs to adopt a similar approach to problem-solving and should use this process in developing most legislation.

Step #1:  Define the Problem

This may seem like a simple step, but it is one of the most important, and can be quite complicated.  If this step of analysis and data gathering is ignored, or done in a shoddy manner, the process will be short-circuited right at the start.  In  my opinion, it is right here that Congress often fails in defining problems for one major reason: instead of collecting broad-based data and information (i.e. a myriad of opinions and facts that should be explored), Committee chairpersons and individual members too often seek out what they want to hear, or what some special interest wants them to hear - and they rarely listen to those most affected by the problem - thus narrowing the definition of a problem to something that fails to adequately address an in-depth definition.  Too often, staff research is kept within boundaries of ideology, hearings are limited to special interest witnesses, and definition of problems to be solved is pitiful.

Perhaps hearings ought to serve a much different role by moving them from imposing hearing rooms to a comfortable location where people can discuss the issues with Congresspersons, and those affected by a problem or knowledgeable of such can debate as well as discuss.  Such changes could enable Congressmen and women to deal with real people and real situations instead of putting on a show, aiming for re-election, or grandstanding before an audience.  Congressional hearings have deteriorated to a degree that is harmful to the purpose for which Congress exists: to promote legislation for the safety and general welfare of the people.

The gathering of information and data by the Congress, in order to define a problem, is a process that is seriously flawed.  In fact, it would seem that much of that step is simply missing.  Surveys of constituents (not pre-determined surveys that usually appear), focus group and interview results, charts and Histograms, in addition to reports and figures from the CBO and GAO are all possibilities for gathering important data, but alas, the Congress does not seem to have time for such in-depth data gathering.  Unfortunately, we have more than once seen Republicans reject fact-based information that does not correspond to their ‘principles” or ideology.

Such data-gathering and opinion-collecting should lead to a sub-step that formulates a Problem Statement.  According to a professor at East Carolina University, “A ‘Problem Statement’ is a brief… overview of a difficulty or lack and the way you propose to address that difficulty or lack. The ultimate goal of a problem statement is to transform a generalized problem (something that bothers you; a perceived lack) into a targeted, well-defined problem—one that can be resolved through focused research and careful decision-making.  Writing a Problem Statement can help you clearly identify the purpose of the project you will propose.” 

A Purpose Statement is meant to clarify the real problem, and could involve several of the following questions:
--is the problem stated objectively?
--is the problem sufficiently limited in scope?
--is there common understanding of the Statement?
--does the Statement contain measures?
--is the statement short and sweet (no more than 10-15 words)?
--is the problem worth solving?

I would venture to comment on just one of those questions: “does the Statement contain measures?”  It is here, I think, that Congress fails again by not providing us with criteria for successful outcomes that can be measured and therefore evaluated.  Often, we get legislation or appropriations that have no measures attached and result in not only a lack of evaluation, but a lack of enforcement as well.  I don’t think it is too much to ask that every piece of legislation intended to resolve problems be required to have attached a Problem Statement that includes measures or benchmarks that enable the solutions to be evaluated, along with the monies spent to address those same solution(s). 

Step #2:  Analyze Potential Causes

“Isn’t the real problem that Congress [both Democratic and Republican controlled] failed to match spending and available revenue? Who grew the deficit…? What is the point in answering that question except for political gain? In any case the answer is easy; Congress did.”  (

The point is that Congress passes all appropriation bills, and no money can be drawn from the Treasury unless Congress appropriates it.  So apparently one very big source of the debt problem is the Congress.  Is Congress the only source of the problem?  No, of course not.  The Executive branch has its own contributions to make to the problem of deficit and debt.  Its departments and offices produce bloated budgets based on erroneous principles and egregious practices, such as spending large leftover balances in the 4th quarter instead of turning money back to the Treasury.  Zero-based budgeting is a simple method of avoiding a bloated budget based on the previous year’s spending, but where is that required?  The citizenry itself may also be a source of the debt problem.  After all, they keep returning politicians to the Congress who continue to burden the voters with greater debt.

Step #3:  Identify Possible Solutions

According to the GAO, the federal debt primarily affects the federal budget through the level of interest spending. If interest on the federal debt is relatively large, this reduces budgetary flexibility because unlike other federal spending, interest cannot be changed directly. Rather, interest spending is a function of interest rates and the amount of debt on which interest must be paid.  So, is the real problem not over-spending, but the interest rate, and is a possible solution to seek a better interest rate? 

This is quite different from what is often said by politicians that the debt is so high that we are going to be leaving a financial burden for our children and grandchildren that equals some made-up average amount per person that has to be paid to liquidate the debt.  Is a possible solution more revenue?

We have a responsibility as citizens to question anything a politician says that lacks the more precise definition of a problem needing to be solved.  Perhaps one solution might be term limits, or voting against congressmen who lie, mislead, and scam the public.

From a New York Times Article: Debt Splits the Left - Feb. 5, 2012
“… James Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas, contends that the issue of deficit spending has been blown out of proportion by those whose focus on austerity blinds them to the damage inflicted by cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Instead of conducting major surgery on federal spending programs, Galbraith argues that “it is possible to run a low and even modestly negative real interest rate on the public debt at a low rate of inflation, and therefore to  sustain quite a large primary deficit, essentially indefinitely and trouble free. His solution is to “let the economy recover through  time, and do not worry if the debt-to-GDP ratio rises for a while.”

Congress does not always appropriate money based on need, but on greed.  It does not guard against lobbyists or their clients.  It does not often hold adequate hearings, nor interview those who would be most affected by their legislation.  They do not mind spending taxpayers’ money for earmarks that are nothing but pork, although some community groups do benefit from the largesse.  Earmarks come down to being campaign expenditures disguised as legislation.  Congress often passes deficit spending items because it has not even looked for offsets in other areas of the budget.  All of these negatives can be turned into possible solutions.  The everlasting claim from radical Republicans is that we must cut spending, especially in social programs and government-backed insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (which they mistakenly call “entitlements“).  So far, other than a nod toward cutting tax loopholes, their mantra is that this is the one and only solution to out debt problem.

There may be several possible solutions to any one problem.  The concern here is not to lose sight of the Problem Statement and propose solutions that are not apropos to that Statement.  The next step is where such focus comes into play.

Step #4:  Select the Best Solution

This step has three sub-parts: 1) assign weighted criteria to the solutions, for example: ‘the solution must be broad enough to reduce the deficit by 1% in each of four years’- 35% weight; (2) apply the criteria to each solution; (3) chose the best solution(s) based on highest score and group consensus.

Step #5:  Develop an Action Plan

Instead of developing “talking points” to sell a particular viewpoint or ideology, this step requires the development of action steps that will result in implementation of the solution(s) to the stated problem.  First, the solution(s) must be divided into logical steps and each step must designate who is to do what, how, and by when.  Second,  a contingency plan must be developed for each step to get around potential obstacles or hurdles which might arise (John Boehner will love this because it’s like a “Plan B”, but with serious intent!).

It occurs to me that the writing of legislation presently is an exercise in legal gibberish and vagueness.  Wouldn’t it make some sense to write legislation for solving problems with an Action Plan in mind so that Titles and sections could be devoted to action steps and their concomitant requirements: displaying a brief description of each action step, a designation of persons or departments responsible for implementation, a beginning date and firm end date for each step, and the amount of money needed to implement each step (perhaps this could help to replace the inane independent process of “authorization” of funds for departments).

Step #6:  Implement Solution(s) and Evaluate Progress

This is essentially what the oversight function of Congress should entail, but once again Congress has failed to carry out a reasonable and effective process of evaluation.  Evaluation is something of a joke; what is done is not evaluative; it is punitive or at least demoralizing.  Congress spends little time on this very important action, first, because they are not engaged in a definitive process that defines Problems, proposes the best solutions, makes Action plans and assigns specific steps and amounts of money to those action steps.  So what is there to evaluate?  Instead, Congress spends its time in oversight hearings raising questions that promote its particular Party brand, attack the opposite party brand, seize electoral advantage where possible, and criticize government personnel based on made-up criteria.  This is not what evaluation (oversight) is meant to be. 

On all these matters, Congress would do itself and the citizenry a favor by getting on-going training in problem-solving and evaluation techniques.  We need to change the out-dated process, the rules, the procedures, and the techniques by which Congress operates.  Right now, they are doing not-very-credible work because they are operating as if better techniques, strategies, and processes do not exist.  Is it tradition, obstinacy, laziness, arrogance, or plain ignorance that holds them back from exploring a better way?  All of the above, you say.  I agree.