Opinion | Lansing should focus on solving problems, not securing ‘wins’

Fred Keller is the former chairman of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation board and founder of Grand Rapids-based Cascade Engineering.

In today’s political world, many are a bit surprised at how little gets done. Others are exasperated at the divisiveness, the name-calling, even the lying of politicians. And others are content that their party is in power and will do the right thing.  

What is interesting is that this landscape of politics hasn’t changed much from the founding days. I was reminded as I watched “Hamilton” that the bitterness, the rivalry, the name-calling was present even as that rogue band of innovators took on a new form of government.

It also occurred to me that perhaps rather than try to emulate the old days, it is time for us to do some innovating as well. It is time for government to embrace innovation.

We now have a political system that is quite predictable. As U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell so brazenly announced at the conclusion of the 2016 election, “Winners make policy, losers go home.” It is all about who is “in power,” meaning which party can control 50 percent plus one of the votes.

Power has been defined by who gets to make the choice among all the alternatives that are available. Power is about which party can “control” their party members and make sure they don’t “break rank.” And now that we have a power split with the U.S. House being controlled by Democrats and the Senate and White House by Republicans, do we expect things to go more smoothly?

The recent shutdown of federal government because of partisan disagreements doesn’t suggest we can expect any changes in how problems are solved any time soon!

Closer to home with the Michigan Legislature in the hands of Republicans and the governor’s administration controlled by Democrats, can we expect real problem solving to go on?

Michael Porter, the Harvard professor and marketing guru, wrote an insightful piece in 2017 titled “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America.” In it he points out that with just two parties we have a duopoly. And when a duopoly exists it is the desire of the participants to keep all others out; in a sense to keep the status quo. Each party’s primary interest is to be “in control.” So as long as there are only two parties, one or the other will hold the power.    

The real objective of lawmakers should be to solve problems, and I believe many of them genuinely want to do so. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer based her campaign on “reaching across the aisle” and has confirmed that intent in her early days as governor.

And some Republicans have been known to favor bipartisanship. But new House Speaker Lee Chatfield has indicated he is willing to develop a relationship with Democrats in order to make progress.  

However the current reality (and the problem) is that the political process is about proposing solutions based on an ideology not based on true problem-solving. The process we often think of as problem-solving is “compromise.” Yet compromise generally feels to many like giving in: I give a little you give a little and we meet at the middle somewhere.  

Compromise is good for negotiations when for instance there is a financial transaction, like buying a house. You start far apart and then “compromise” until the middle is reached.  

What is stunning about complex problems is that they are not transactional problems, they have dozens of possible solutions and require a good process to find the optimum solution. Complex problems like how to pay for fixing Michigan’s crumbling roads or how to have an effective policy that keeps people out of prison again after they come back to their communities require deep understanding of the problems and barriers; an understanding of the options and it takes collaboration to find the best solution for Michigan, not the one that shows a particular party has won. Good problem-solving processes exist that can be used to arrive at good solutions.  

What if we asked our politicians that instead of representing our particular special interest they would try a new innovation: solving problems using a good process. Wouldn’t that be better than asking them to be the most powerful?  

After all, the power is in the process. If it is followed, the result will meet everyone’s needs.

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Kevin Grand
Thu, 01/31/2019 - 9:28am

Good summary on the underlying problem.

Not sure where Mr. Keller is trying to go with a solution.

His part regarding Michigan Roads for example, ignores the facts that both parties have mutually exclusive positions.

For example, one party wants to use all of the funding already collected at the pump and SoS exclusively to fix the problem with Michigan Roads, while the other dances around the question hoping that people won't take notice.


Unfortunately, BOTH parties don't want to address the elephant in the room, why aren't roads lasting in the first place?

I-75 in Oakland County is a good example. It was shut down for several months from Crooks to Auburn Roads back in 2017 while it was being rebuilt, widened and exits rerouted.

Just last week, that very same stretch of road was shut down due to a brand new road literally falling apart as vehicles drove over it.



Throwing good money after bad doesn't solve the problem if you fail to establish why you have a problem in the first place.

Thu, 01/31/2019 - 2:06pm

If you want problems solved, bring in outsiders and get rid of government. The state would be better off with a 1 person manager.

Rich VanderVeen
Thu, 01/31/2019 - 2:26pm

Fred Keller's thoughtful essay should be required reading for every local, state and federal elected official - and their constituents. We are actually in this together. With courageous compromise, the ideal of "public service" might be reinvigorated!

Gerald DeMaire
Thu, 01/31/2019 - 3:38pm

one person to run the state, I think I can suggest a one word title for that person, Dictator


Byron Haskins
Thu, 01/31/2019 - 6:41pm

Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter wrote the monograph quoted, not just Michael Porter.

Michigan Observer
Thu, 01/31/2019 - 8:29pm

Mr. Keller says, "Good problem-solving processes exist that can be used to arrive at good solutions. " and, "After all, the power is in the process. If it is followed, the result will meet everyone’s needs." I disagree somewhat. It may be a case of arriving at the "best" solution rather than a "good" solution. And it may not be possible to meet "everyone's needs".

Having just two parties is not necessarily a problem as long as the two parties share, at least to some extent, some common assumptions. The Netherlands have thirteen parties, none of which make up more than 22% percent of parliament, and they seem to have a considerable amount of gridlock. Apparently, they too lack a broad consensus on basic assumptions.

Milko Gergov
Fri, 02/01/2019 - 9:35am

Fred, is that simple like the “4 P”?:
- Process improvements
- Process innovations
- Product improvements
- Product innovations
All the rest has one name: RESULTS in pictures and numbers before and after.

Fri, 02/01/2019 - 5:41pm

Mr. Keller is right and wrong. The politics are predictable, but the system isn’t forcing that predictability. It isn’t the system that has made the partisanship so disappointing, it is the people. Our system doesn’t require the extremes; it is the people in there that have created the path to the extremes.
Since it is the people then why can’t the people outside of office change the path to new results? Mr. Keller and the Kellogg Foundation are in an exceptional position to facilitate voters of Michigan making changes in the practices so results are deliver and partisan extremely push out?.
Why can’t Mr. Keller and the Kellogg Foundation create a structured conversations with voters of Michigan, why not turn them into a ‘public think tank’ to address legislation, programs, and agencies fulfilling their purpose, regularly reporting verified results, and developing the means to created better informed voters? The Kellogg Foundation seeks out the ideas of ‘experts’, they create forums for the ‘experts’ to lecture the public and legislatures on what to do and yet the problems, with all that expertise, still exist. Why doesn’t Mr. Keller and the Kellogg Foundation begin looking to the collective wisdom of public, why don’t they draw on the diversity of perspectives in the electorate, why won’t they consider that there are many forms of expertise that are being applied everyday across Michigan, actually solving problems such as those Mr. Keller seems to be frustrated with. Why not turn to the collective expertise being applied by Michiganders, the collective wisdom of Michiganders in a collection of ‘structured conversations’ to focus on the perennial problems. Currently, all the people of Michigan can do is ask a question or at a town meeting use the three minutes allotted to state a frustration or offer an idea, or write a comment on Bridge. But there is no conversation, there is no building of ideas, there is no exploring of approaches from other experiences. The public is simply left out that ‘power’, the organizations of ‘consequence’ which keep doing what they doing an nothing changes.
Why don’t Mr. Keller, The Kellogg Foundation, or any other Foundation create a Michigan ‘public think tank’ of ‘structured conversations’ that foster creativity, the building on the collective wisdom of the Michigan electorate, that provides a means to engage the creativity and successes applied everyday here in Michigan to persistent Michigan problems?
The answer will be, if there a conversation in the comments on this article. If Mr. Keller doesn’t have a conversation here we won’t see the public engaged in a ‘structure conversation’ to solve Michigan problems.

Fri, 02/01/2019 - 5:52pm

The idea of wins has little to do with it. The voters don't pay attention and have no idea what that would mean. The biggest issue is that the over lap of acceptable solutions to each side has become almost non-existent.