Was the Government Shutdown My Fault?!

A certain irony does not escape me, as I prepare to return to Ethiopia next week. For the past two years I’ve been part of a team that supports the Ministry of Health to incorporate innovation into their health system, and improve health services for everyday citizens. And just as I head off to help this other country’s government, my own government shuts down.

Now, I don’t really believe that I, or anyone with a similar career, played a significant role in this particular shutdown. But I do find it disappointing that in Congress there is a dearth of the everyday ambassador values so commonly demonstrated by contributors to this website. Here’s how I think EAs might have handled the situation differently:

  • Despite ideological differences, forge consensus for the greater good without holding the entire country hostage.
  • Engage in an open, facts-based forum (that would not shut down the government) about disagreements around health care, instead of playing games with a generally uninformed populace, purporting falsities and scare tactics.
  • Thoughtfully consider the plethora of ways in which our shutdown government harms everyday Americans as well as many other nations whose economy is inextricably tied into ours (globalization!), and make decisions cognizant of the ways in which our actions affect others.

But this shutdown did make me wonder, pretty immediately: what if I were working as an intrapreneuer inside my nation’s capital instead of within a large foreign aid institution? And if way more everyday ambassadors committed their careers to government and political reform. Could we have averted this crisis altogether?

These questions only led to a deeper level of inquiry: do I owe an allegiance to my own country’s government first before I leave to go help others? Or am I in effect helping my country via the positive diplomatic effects of helping another? Or is it an outdated thought in a globalized world, to think that anyone with a desire to do good in the world should be beholden to pledge efforts only to their ‘homeland’?

Much of the content on this website paints the picture of an ‘everyday ambassador’ as someone who crosses borders of nationality in their quest to serve the world. But is it not an even more challenging, and thus admirable, task to be an ambassador to other political parties and sub-cultures within one’s own nation or neighborhood? I have so much more in common with my Ethiopian colleagues than with a fellow American who doesn’t believe that healthcare is a human right! (And on that note, the Health Insurance Marketplace is now open!)

Today I would like to propose a call to action to all “everyday Americans”, and I will echo the eloquence of my friend Jonny Dorsey, who has helped develop the Aspen Institute’s Impact Careers Initiative, aiming to channel more young people into the “service career” pipeline. Yesterday he suggested,

“Millennials need to step up and help fix government. This means advocating for important issues, running for office, working for campaigns, working for the government, and repairing the structures that incent this ridiculous behavior – from gerrymandering to campaign finance laws to broken media….I feel huge appreciation for all of you who keep working for the federal government despite being treated so poorly…. don’t let the rest of us off the hook. We need to help more.”

So what does it take to ‘help’?

One of the four “key” qualities that we talk about with everyday ambassadorship is the quality of Commitment (the other three being: Empathy, Patience, and Humility), which is understandably difficult to cultivate for Millennials raised during the digital revolution. As one side-effect of being immersed in light-speed global communications, we sometimes have a generational tendency to shift quickly between issues and initiatives and jobs that feel compelling, instead of committing to a cause, or set of causes, over a long time horizon, no matter how frustrating the fight. Government reform is not be a fight that everyone must commit a career to, but it is something that everyone can contribute to as a citizen.

So in honor (mourning?) of the shutdown, I encourage you to make at least one commitment today, for the months and year ahead. Maybe it’s as simple as committing to vote in every election? Maybe you have or will find a friend with incredible ideas running for office, and you’ll help her/him get there? Maybe you realize you know very little about campaign finance, and commit to learning more and getting involved in advocacy to reform it? Or maybe there’s a career change in your future?

But perhaps the most important commitment we can all make is one that will ultimately prevent shutdowns like this from happening in the future. That would be a commitment to fostering more relationships across borders of political opposition. Democrats and Republicans will naturally always disagree, and that’s an important part of our democracy. But what more ambassadorship can help prevent is the extremist factions within either party that threaten a nation’s central responsibility to protect and serve her citizens. As noted in the poll below, there’s no consensus among Americans on “who’s to blame” for this shutdown, but they also didn’t offer a category for “the American people”.

CBS News Poll, 2013: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57604632/republicans-may-take-more-blame-for-shutdown-poll-says/

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