In politics, the person in the middle is confusing. Republican politicians such as Senator Ted Cruz decry the “murky middle.” Similarly, at a recent House Democratic caucus meeting, tension grew between the majority liberal faction and party moderates. The tension with moderates comes on the heels of a Pew study showing the two parties to be the most politically polarized in the organization’s polling history.

This polarization is a destructive force impacting management in the public sector. When legislation is written by politically-charged lawmakers, programs are often preordained to be successful. And the opposing lawmakers’ programs are “doomed from the start.” A quick Internet search will yield any number of sources decrying “the failure of liberalism” or “the failure of conservatism” – as if an entire ideology (and all ideas put forward by the party espousing it) could be proven farcical by limited, cherry-picked, anecdotal evidence.

In business, the key steps of any best practice-worthy management process are pretty straightforward: plan, implement, evaluate and revise. Continuous improvement is a hallmark of success for most competitive enterprises.Things get a bit fuzzier in the public sector. The truth is often beholden to political realities. Political ideology negates the results of an objective evaluation if a politician’s pet program demonstrates weakness. Motivated reasoning plays a key role. In general terms, motivated reasoning refers to the interpretation of events in accord with one’s own personal biases. In politics, motivated reasoning would lead to the interpretation of events to be consistent with one’s ideology, even if another interpretation may be more accurate.  From a motivated reasoning perspective, liberals are inclined to believe the positive information about liberal-inspired programs. Conservatives would believe the positive information about theirs. Both would be inclined to ignore negative information that suggested their favored programs were not performing, and to seize on information suggesting the inadequacy of the opposition’s programs.

Imagine a situation involving three doctors. You have just undergone a cancer screening. One doctor tells you that you are cancer-free. The second informs you of an unfortunate diagnosis. The third tells you that “the jury is out” and further tests are needed.

From a motivated reasoning perspective, you would want to believe the positively-inclined doctor, because that is the outcome you hope for. Conversely, you may privately spew profanity about the obviously incorrect second doctor. The third doctor is a bit of a conundrum. You would think, “She had the same information as the first two. Why is she so wishy-washy?”  In the end, listening to only the positive outlook could lead to disastrous unintended consequences. Maybe the third doctor’s advice, though unappealing, should be heeded.

Therein lays the rub for government organizations. Failure cannot be seen in ideological terms. Rather it must be addressed using as much objective information as possible. Legislative acts such as the GPRA Modernization Act aim to facilitate this process by inculcating a culture of effective strategy building and performance monitoring. But performance-monitoring programs are only as good as what stakeholders do with the information. In this sense, it would be helpful for lawmakers to embrace the murky middle and act like the third doctor in the example above, if only from a process management standpoint.

While ideology can lead to preordained conclusions, results don’t always align so neatly. Politicians must not turn a blind eye to crumbling, but beloved programs. This means rolling up our collective sleeves, and coming together for logical fixes to the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, Medicare, and other programs with known structural flaws.

The main question is whether politicians can collectively embrace the murky middle to offer policies that can be successful, though not necessarily ideologically pure. Political centrism can be a valid path to achieving management successes in government, but the political costs may be too high to achieve a government that works effectively.

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