Thursday, January 5, 2012

Framing the "Surplus" (or Make That a "Slightly Better Balance Sheet")


A main thing that leaders do is help their constituents make sense of a public issue. In the leadership programs I help organize at the Humphrey School, we coach participants in the art of "framing." That is, we help them listen to how leaders and followers are describing, or framing, public issues or problems. We also prompt participants to consider alternative descriptions or frames that might appeal to a broader array of groups and citizens.
For example, are leaders speaking of health care as a basic human necessity, as a right, as a marketable commodity, or as a social service? One frame - say, human rights - encourages the audience to conclude that government has a responsibility to assure everyone access to affordable health care. The marketable commodity frame might lead to the conclusion that competition among health care providers is the best method of producing both quality and affordable care, and that government should play only a minor role. A more comprehensive frame might include both of these, and the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010 evokes such a frame through its guarantees (and requirements) of near universal health insurance and its encouragement of competition among health care plans. People who think the act has too much of a big government flavor try to frame it as "Obamacare"; people who like the act are now labeling it "Obamacares."
I thought of the art of framing recently when Minnesota legislators and the governor announced a "surplus" in state revenues. Surplus implies happy days and implies that somehow the state has got its fiscal house in order. A common sense look at the state's financial condition, though, reveals the opposite. All we have is a forecast of greater-than-previously-predicted state revenues versus expenditures. Meanwhile state officials have balanced the budget only by borrowing millions from school districts and from tobacco settlement funds. Prudent reserve funds are depleted. We hardly have a surplus. If you had been governor or speaker of the Minnesota House, how would you have framed the forecast this fall?

Posted January 5, 2012 12:16 PM

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