Featured Post: Dissecting little g versus big G government

Pulling from theories and ideas discussed in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and Art of Motorcycle, Dr. Matt Hale and Hon. Alex Torpey discuss how to conceptualize one of the most fundamental, but often overlooked, aspects of improving government in one of their classroom video series. (Initial text below)

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig discusses the different ‘universities’ for which he worked, both literally and metaphorically. The “university” is the institution as we know it – the campus, buildings, bricks, students, professors, staff, budgets and payrolls. The “University” (with a capital U) is the idea, the purpose and the theory of the University – one unconstrained by physical or tangible practicalities, but there with a purpose more like this: “Providing space for the increase, discussion and advancement of critical thinking and knowledge.” Let’s map this idea to government.

“Little g government,” represents the physical institutions, point of interaction or in a workflow perspective the “output” of government, including laws, rules, employees, budgets meetings and buildings. A court, which hears the case of one community member suing another over a disagreement on property lines, is an example of “government.”

“Big G Government” is the abstraction, concept or larger purpose. It’s the ideas, concepts and purposes which those institutions were created to serve, which, if you’d like, you can think about also an input (although that’s a not perfect comparison). This could be the idea, for example, that governments should provide objective and fair mediation spaces based on regional and national social values and legal principle to mitigate and resolve conflicts over property between or among citizens.

Now, let’s expand and take this example to one of our favorite public sector interactions: the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The DMV, in an institutional sense (the way most of us interact with it), provides driver tests, licenses and other services to maintain your ability to drive and vehicle in good standing and regulate/implement the laws and procedures promulgated by the government in the United States and in each states regarding roads and vehicles.

The DMV, in the most conceptual sense, is a trust-creating and opportunity/activity enabling public agency. The trust creating is so that any given driver (or cyclist, or pedestrian) may use a public road, and be fairly well assured that the other people existing in this same space have gone through some level of education, training and licensing that more likely means they will follow the rules, and operate their vehicle safely. This assurance, provides, me, as another driver in the system great opportunity; it enables an important activity. Not just “driving” for the fun of it, as that’s just another means to an end, but rather, driving as a means for me to have access to increased economic, political, educational and cultural opportunity (and of course, let’s not forget for recreation, on a nice day with windows down). Having equitable access to those opportunities is important, arguably critical. For this to happen, the roads need to be safe, efficient and fairly organized by some generally agreed upon and understood set of guidelines that most of the time, people conform to. The DMV is the way that we (as in our government) decided to accomplish those goals and serve this larger purpose. By providing curriculums in schools, testing, licensing, setting and implementing certain rules and other procedures that it can within this scope, the DMV is attempting to meet those large goals.

More coming soon!