Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pulling Back the Ropes: Humanizing Government

The first day I shadowed Jack, a North Carolina lobbyist, the itemized budget for the next year had just been released that very morning. This would inform the rest of our day.

Jack handed a copy to myself and my sidekick, an intern in his association. It was long, heavy, and looked like Greek to me. This wasn't surprising, however. I knew nothing about this governmental system of ours. I never paid attention in elementary school when we learned about "how a bill becomes a law" and, as an adult, it appeared far too complicated and corrupt for me to care. It seemed to me that my voice could never be heard over the loud chaos of our governmental machine.

This day, with Jack and his intern, I was in the belly of the beast. It was a crash course in how similar politics are to high school and how effective one citizen could actually be. As we crossed the grounds of the State Legislative Building and the nearby legislative office building for the first time that day, my eyes were confused.

There was what I expected; many older, Caucasian men in suits who looked important or, at least, like they had important places to go. I recognized one president of a major hospital and was told he was being accompanied by "his lobbyist." While there were many of the characters I expected to find, there were also large groups that stood out. The three most distinctive were the large clusters of Harley guys decked out in full motorcycle gear, the Arts Council group respectfully linked by a large yellow button stuck to their shirts, and the women in Dr. Seuss clothes beside those with children's books taped to their heads.

At first, these sights were disorienting enough that I assumed these people were part of a play downtown, got lost and ended up in the wrong place. Of course, this was not true. It was my first taste of what Jack called "the theater" of government.

For the rest of the day, I would have the pleasure of meeting and talking to some of these characters. All of them were there to address a particular line item or two in the newly released budget. These were community lobbyists who had a mission and sought out the appropriate representatives to plead their case. Some groups were highly organized, with full color flyers, statistics, and appointments with many representatives throughout the day. Others relied on existing relationships with certain politicians and were happy to wait around all day to get a few minutes of face time. Some relied mostly on the costume to get them in the door.

Two things became clear to me on this day:

1. We, the people, do have a voice. We just have to learn how, where, and when to use it. (That's what I hope my book will help you do!)
2. For every line item on the budget, there will be individuals, groups and lobbyists with a convincing argument for why that money should be appropriated differently, not cut, or increased.

The state budget I saw had numbers so long I got dizzy. With nearly twenty billion dollars on the table, it would seem like there should be plenty to go around. Hardly. For every program that is trimmed, there are real people effected and fighting to maintain their jobs and the stability of their lives. For every argument for or against a budget line item, there are compelling personal stories, ethical considerations, and financial implications. The bottom line is, there is no easy answer. Ever.

The theme of many of my talks and approaches to healthcare revolves around this concept of "pulling back the curtain." This calls for humanizing the experience in order to understand the true complexities of human emotion and systematic limitations involved. If we want to move forward, we can not remain still, standing in one spot waiting for others to fix the problems to meet our particular satisfaction. We must be willing to levitate and look down at the entire picture from all angles. The purpose of this, of course, is to find ways to identify the flaws and capitalize on the opportunities while working together, as human beings who happen to be patients/family members/professionals, for the best experience possible.

What I was shocked to discover on the grounds of the legislative building is that this goal of "pulling back the curtain" is not at all different for politics. The flaws in our governmental systems are not hard to see. Corruption, self-interest, and the business of political "scratch my back now and I'll scratch yours later," is as obvious as the nose on your face. What also becomes obvious, however, is the genuine grey area of so many of the issues at hand.

One small example of a grey issue I saw that day was a bill trying to be passed that said a person had the right to use deadly force if a threatening stranger was on their property. This seems logical, we all should have the right to feel safe in our home. What this bill did not include or foresee was the risk it posed to some "strangers" who also have the right to be safe. Social workers and child psychologists, for example, are sometimes mandated to visit a home unannounced as a part of child abuse investigations. If a home owner perceives this professional may take their child from the home, they then pose a "threat." Does this give them the right to use deadly force on this professional? One would hope the state would say "no" but at the time of my visit, they had not recognized this as a problem with the bill.

For those who choose to become politically involved, frustration awaits. It is a messy process. However, a part of that mess is the need for, and lack of, first person accounts. The patient voice is needed. No, it is required. First, we have to understand the system and where our voices can be heard. Once we have done that, nothing should hold us back from telling our story. Our stories MUST be told. Let's pull back the big red ropes and walk into our own government buildings ready to be an essential part of the process. Let's make a difference when and where we can. Let's humanize government, shall we?

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