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The Bren­nan Center gathered a group of schol­ars, advoc­ates, journ­al­ists, found­a­tion lead­ers, and phil­an­throp­ists with the goal of identi­fy­ing possible solu­tions to govern­ment dysfunc­tion. This new report describes and explores those possible solu­tions.


On Febru­ary 12–13, 2014 the Bren­nan Center for Justice convened a group of 80 schol­ars, advoc­ates, journ­al­ists, found­a­tion lead­ers and phil­an­throp­ists at NYU School of Law for a series of discus­sions on govern­ment dysfunc­tion. The confer­ence was conceived at the height of worry over the govern­ment shut­down and latest debt ceil­ing debacle. It soon grav­it­ated toward larger, longer-term ambi­tions. The Center — and organ­iz­a­tions like ours — must grapple with govern­ing crisis that besets the coun­try, a task that will require new think­ing and focused effort. Our goal for the two days: to facil­it­ate discus­sions that moved beyond argu­ments about causes of the current state of dysfunc­tion and, rather, begin to identify poten­tial viable solu­tions.

Among the repeated themes and lessons from the two day gath­er­ing:

  • Across the polit­ical spec­trum, parti­cipants shared a sense of urgency — even alarm — over the collapse of effect­ive govern­ment. This is not just messy governance as usual. Some­thing new, and disturb­ing, seemed evid­ent to most parti­cipants.
  • Cures for dysfunc­tion are struc­tural as well as cultural. Reformers should avoid the fallacy of assum­ing that tweak­ing rules or tight­en­ing proced­ures can over­come deep-seated divi­sions. At the same time, merely wish­ing for partis­ans to cast aside their anim­os­it­ies is a hope never likely to be achieved. Recog­niz­ing cultural and polit­ical trends, the parti­cipants grav­it­ated toward reforms that could steer polit­ical actors toward more product­ive governance. We sought to avoid false choices, and largely succeeded.
  • The confer­ence produced some surprises. In partic­u­lar, some stressed the import­ance of party lead­er­ship … and skep­ti­cism about open­ness and trans­par­ency as an effect­ive mode for governance. Differ­ent communit­ies brought precon­cep­tions — and had those precon­cep­tions chal­lenged. Social justice-oriented groups and funders grappled with the “dysfunc­tion” frame. Reform ideas must be assessed not just through the lens of “demo­cracy” but also “govern­ab­il­ity.” If govern­ment and the polit­ical system are not rendered more func­tional, on a basic level, no under­ly­ing policy changes are possible. Funders and schol­ars who focus, espe­cially, on “polar­iz­a­tion” as the ill to be addressed grappled with the need to embrace struc­tural reforms, and not just changes in norms and prac­tices.
  • All grappled with a funda­mental chal­lenge for funders, nonprofit groups, schol­ars and journ­al­ists: how to address intrins­ic­ally polit­ical ques­tions through a neces­sar­ily nonpar­tisan lens. We must beware the fallacy of tech­no­cratic solu­tions. Today’s prob­lems have deep polit­ical roots — the solu­tions must be inev­it­ably, intrins­ic­ally polit­ical. It is naive to expect solu­tions to come without wider public engage­ment and polit­ical conflict.
  • Repeatedly, parti­cipants asked whether dysfunc­tion is a genu­ine crisis, or merely the most recent swing of a cyclical pattern. Perhaps it’s always been this bad. Or perhaps it will work itself out, as moder­ates battle extrem­ists and self-interest drives lead­ers to the bargain­ing table. Or perhaps, as too often seems likely, this really does reflect a new, worri­some and danger­ous degrad­a­tion of Amer­ica’s demo­cratic exper­i­ment.
  • One divid­ing line: Some parti­cipants believed the govern­mental break­down on display is best under­stood as a consequence of widen­ing economic inequal­ity and spread­ing stag­na­tion. They see the most worri­some polar­iz­a­tion as top-down, not left-right. Given these broad trends, they sugges­ted, it would be a surprise if the polit­ical system worked better than it did. Others saw the chal­lenges of the polit­ical system (e.g., the abil­ity of wealthy interests to stall or steer policy change) as a cause of economic malaise. In any case, they argued, polit­ical reform is a neces­sary precon­di­tion to policies that could help spur economic revival.

In all, we explored seven topics — the summary of each panel discus­sion is described as a section in this report. In addi­tion, we heard an even­ing keynote and a funder-led and focused summary at the close of the event. Sessions were held in a “discussant-style” format to facil­it­ate parti­cip­a­tion from the entire audi­ence, along with the moder­ator and panel­ists. There were a few vari­ations: the session on “Oppor­tun­it­ies for Bipar­tisan Demo­cracy Reform,” featured the co-chairs of the Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion enga­ging in a lively moder­ated dialogue; the panel on “Cultural Polar­iz­a­tion” was a Q&A over dinner. The sections that follow each provide a summary of the discus­sions that ensued, followed by the Bren­nan Center’s assess­ment of follow up ques­tions to be explored via research. Record­ings of the discus­sions are avail­able, as well, on the Center’s web site (www.bren­nan­cen­ Other resources included as appen­dices with this summary: the event program; bios of the moder­at­ors and panel­ists, and the full list of parti­cipants.