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Competing For Progress

In their 2017 report, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America,” former president at and CEO at Gehl foods, Katherine M. Gehl and Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter analyze how unhealthy competition in the political system has created an inability for government to solve problems. To spur change, the report also outlines a set of reforms.

Gehl and Porter’s work is about politics, but it’s not political. Instead they make a case for using the lens of industry to better understand the current political state and how it can spark dialogue about the future of U.S. democracy. Gehl and Porter suggest actions that would shift the entire system by creating healthy competition and raising the importance of public interests over special interest groups.

Katherine M. Gehl – Former President and CEO, Gehl Foods

Micheal E. Porter – Bishop William Lawrence University Professor, Harvard Business School








The Detroiter spoke with Gehl and Porter to learn more about this report and how a perspective shift can impact political dialogue and progress.

You co-authored a 2017 report on how competition in politics is failing America; why is this work significant?

MP: Our work is an attempt to take a deep look at how the politics industry is structured, how the parties compete, what they compete on, and who are the most important customers to the parties.

Current political competition is not serving the average American. Both parties are focused on serving partisan and special interests that are aligned with their ideology. The average American has virtually no influence. The research we cite in our report shows that if you take out the organized special interests and the high-network people who make donations, the influence of the average citizen on policy is statistically insignificant.

What are some of the major problems created by the way in which the bipartisan duopoly currently competes?

MP: We have enormous partisanship. One side blames the other side. We have gridlock. There’s no more compromise or collaboration in creating solutions to complicated problems like health care or gun violence or the many issues we face. Based on our research and work I have done previously with our U.S. Competitiveness Project at Harvard Business School. We’ve discovered, to our shocking dismay, that the U.S. has made very little progress on any of the most important economic or social challenges facing the country.

What are the implications for business?

KG: Conditions for business and for employees are less than optimal because the government becomes incapable of addressing key issues like our subpar education system, national infrastructure, health care system, and a difficult, complex national tax code.
These challenges put our multi-national corporations at a disadvantage compared to their international competitors. They also put local business at a disadvantage, because they cannot, for example, find the skilled employees that they need.

How can using the lens of industry competition help us better understand our current political state and reinvigorate democracy at a time of deep dissatisfaction and distrust?

KG: In any industry, healthy competition tends to lead to customer satisfaction. And unhealthy competition means the customers are not well served. In the politics industry, there’s unhealthy competition. Members work well together to rig the rules of the game to protect themselves from new competition.

That’s why, even though most people don’t like their two choices, there still remain only two. With no other option, you can’t drive improvement in the duopoly and their willingness to satisfy you, because they don’t need to. They just need you to hate them less than the one other choice.

On the flip side, talk about the outputs, absent here in the U.S., that a healthy political system should deliver.

KG: We have five specific outcomes that we believe our democracy, our political system, should deliver, all related to establishing the conditions of competition.

The first is solutions. Congress should solve problems.

Second, government should take action — not just talk about solving problems, but actually pass legislation and implement it.

Third, solutions should be sustainable, balancing short-term and long-term interests of the citizenry. Problems shouldn’t be solved in the present at the expense of the future.

Fourth, we should be able to achieve reasonably broad-based buy-in by citizens. When you first solve something, everybody may not think it’s a great idea. But over time, if you’ve done the right work, citizens will get on board.

The final outcome is, what we do in government should respect our Constitution and the rights of citizens.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Melinda Clynes is a metro Detroit-based storyteller, interviewer, and overall seeker of knowledge.