Even people who support government dread having actual encounters with it. Things don’t have to be that way.
In 1933, a thank-you note arrived at the Roosevelt White House. It was straightforward enough:
Dear Mr. President: This is just to tell you that everything is all right now. The man you sent found our house all right, and we went down to the bank with him and the mortgage can go on for a while longer. You remember I wrote you about losing the furniture too. Well, your man got it back for us. I never heard of a President like you.
Other letters were streaming into the White House at the time, many expressing similar notes of gratitude—and intimacy; relations between citizens and the Administration were on close, personal terms. As the White House fulfilled a request to intervene directly in securing a house and furniture for one specific family, so too did it receive pictures from proud children. “Look how big I am,” they proclaimed. Other letters addressed the president as one would a father or grandfather. The top White House mail clerk had to expand his staff from two to 23.
Think of it: a government human enough for people to feel as if they were friends with it, and helpful enough to be grateful toward. Some 80 years later, we live in a different world, one in which government has become, at best, a hulking shadow in the distance. As government has exploded in size and grown more distant from our everyday lives, we have become ever more dissatisfied with it. This past summer, Gallup reported that among 25 major industries, the federal government ranked dead last in public approval, below even oil companies and lawyers. Only 17 percent of respondents had anything positive to say about government. The main reason for this, of course, is the constant government-bashing we’ve been hearing from the right for decades. But it’s also because people can’t be expected to like something they know little about. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, even the majority of those who receive direct cash benefits from the government, in the forms of Social Security and unemployment, do not know to identify the government as the source of those benefits.
This is a problem for our politics—even a crisis. It’s our central unifying belief that government can be used to do good and to help solve shared problems. But if 83 percent of the people don’t see the government in a positive light, we’ve got trouble. We need to think about this, and we need to do something about it.
There is another aspect to the problem of how government is perceived. Consider: Most citizens’ interactions with government are negative. This is not all the government’s fault. Citizens often contact the government under duress—when a tax deadline looms, when a parent or spouse is sick or has died. But the government doesn’t usually make those difficult interactions any easier. The federal government as we know it is mostly in the business of saying “no”—or at best, explaining to citizens under what complicated X number of conditions, after waiting Y number of weeks, they can finally get to yes. All of us, even committed liberals, dread having to deal with the IRS or applying for a passport. We may think of these as minor inconveniences, but multiply them by many millions and they become a way of life—a way of life that tells people, “Government is not your friend.”
In response, we posit a set of rarely considered questions: What if government were conceived in a radically different fashion? What if government didn’t wait to hear from people in crisis, but reached out to them affirmatively—even sometimes with (gasp!) good news? What if government were in the business of saying yes? And what if the federal government devised methods to let people know—and the vast, vast majority of them have no idea—the ways in which they are already benefiting from government intervention and assistance in their daily lives, from their earliest years on earth to their very last?
It is with these questions in mind that we’ve conceived of “iGov,” a set of principles and practices, which we will outline below, that will make government more accessible, more comprehensible, and—harkening back to Roosevelt’s day—more human. Last year, in the pages of this journal [“Seeing Where the Money Went,” Issue #20] and in The Washington Post, we proposed a “taxpayer receipt,” a one-stop way for citizens to know exactly where their tax money goes. We were pleased to see the idea widely embraced. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate, and the White House released its own version of the receipt online.
That was a promising start. But “iGov” will take the concept several steps further. Over the long term, we need a system that presents an accurate, comprehensive picture of the tangled relationship among government, individual citizens, and their communities. Such a system would line up costs (taxes, fees, and the like) and benefits (Social Security, Medicare, subsidized school loans, etc.) side-by-side, giving all Americans a personalized peek into the bureaucracy they both finance and depend on over the course of their lives. The result, we hope, would be a better-informed citizenry—and a citizenry less hostile to government, since it would now be informed about what government really does.
iGov: What Government Is Doing for Me
iGov would offer citizens a simple and reliable way to track their relationship with the federal government over their lifetimes. Each citizen would have his or her own iGov account, through which the federal government would be able to present the accumulation of the benefits that a person has ever received from across the government. A single click would reveal what the government has meant in a person’s life, in the most concrete terms.
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