When it comes to government and the economy, 2011 has been a year to remember.
Opinion polls these days reflect unprecedented levels of hopelessness, anger and cynicism — pointing to a citizenry that is pessimistic about a rebound in the economy anytime soon, placing much responsibility on the previous Bush administration but likewise lacking confidence in President Barack Obama’s leadership. The divided U.S. Congress, composed of a Republican House and Democrat Senate, gets the lowest approval marks ever recorded.
In Minnesota, people welcomed the Dec. 1 news of a projected $876 million state budget surplus — to be confirmed in February — after the acrimony in 2011 in addressing the state’s $5B financial mess that included a 20-day shutdown and a “kick the can down the road” short-term solution.
Fifty-two “grass tops” Minnesota leaders recently shared with me their own views through a series of one-on-one meetings, telephone conservations and an Internet-based questionnaire. Among those surveyed were CEOs of Fortune 100 companies; owners and operators of small businesses; top executives of Chambers of Commerce, trade associations, nonprofit advocacy groups, foundations and education interests. Several elected and appointed officials who currently or have previously served at local, state and federal levels were also participants.
Worried about polarization
With regard to the current partisan political environment, comments were not unlike those of the general public as the leaders expressed serious reservations about the conduct of the debate.
“I am worried about the polarization of ideas and policies that serve niche groups versus the greater good,” said one responder.
The future of the economy looks uncertain to this group; one business owner said that “despite what’s going on now, we see some favorable signs,” while another offered the view that “for our economy to recover there are painful decisions to make.”
When asked about personal finances a year from now, another CEO who once served in Congress candidly said, “This is anybody’s guess and I just don’t know. … A great deal depends on the stock market.”
More concerned than pessimistic or angry
While I found that there was agreement within the group that most considered themselves political moderates, without regard for ideology we found the leaders to be more concerned than pessimistic or angry, consistently expressing a pragmatic, problem-solving viewpoint.
Among their key points of emphasis:
- They strongly agreed that Minnesota’s work force of the “10-20 year future” is at risk, with one commenting that “people seem to forget how important well-educated workers are to making the economy grow.”
- Most said that “new taxpayer-paid investments in people must be made.”
- About half agreed that “people generally get good value from their government-provided services,” especially from local and state levels.
- The collective judgment of the group was ambivalence about potential efforts to “redesign” government, likely because of a lack of a specific focus and definition of what such redesign efforts would be all about.
The exercise undertaken was more an attitude survey than an up or down poll of opinions. I have found that qualitative research of this kind allows us to use smaller samples and provides various ways to listen more carefully; offhand and throwaway comments are frequently the most revelatory in determining how people really feel.
Chuck Slocum is president of the Williston Group, a management consulting firm. He is a former state GOP chairman and was executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. More detailed information on the “Grass Tops Community Scan” is available by contacting Chuck[at]WillistonGroup.Com.