There are many lessons to be learned about administration and public policy from my personal very favorite hobby since childhood, astronomy. It is very hard to find a week, if not a day or two that goes by without some news of the latest discovery, tool or theory in this inspiring science. Some of them provide profound lessons for public administrators about how we do our work and live our lives. I will highlight two in this brief article. I ask readers of HR Doctor articles — all 16 of you around the country — to consider how you can apply these lessons in your own work and your own life. The first is inertia. The second is time.
The first was brought to us in the 17th century by none other than Sir Isaac Newton. This amazing human formulated the theory of gravity, invented calculus, created the reflecting telescope and formulated “three laws of motion.” That’s enough of a milestone career for several world-class scientists, let alone for one person. The first of the Laws of Motion concerns “inertia.” The idea is that “a body in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.” If we move in a certain direction, we will continue to move that way until and unless some force causes us to change the direction or speed with which we move.
The idea of inertia is what drives much of how we live our lives and operate our governments. It causes us to resist change even when we see the need for change of direction in the name of comfort or what we think is “safety.” Just keep moving along, unchanged in our habits, is not a far leap at all from the defining characteristics of a bureaucracy. Those were laid out in the 19th century, thanks to a chap named Max Weber. You live in or work in a bureaucracy, he reasoned, if you see hierarchy and impersonal rules and regulations. The organization default is to the status quo. In other words, stable organizational success is linked to inertia. How wonderful it might be to create new programs, revamp “ancient” civil service rules or create new ways of doing business which may be more efficient and pleasant for citizens. Yet often when we try, we may crash and burn in a collision with established protocols or vested interests resisting change.
When change impacts our lives, for example, changing jobs, moving to a new community, becoming a mom or dad or finding a significant other with whom to share our lives, the forces driving the change make us uncomfortable. When our direction is altered by the impact of an outside force, uncertainty invades our lives inducing fear as well as the thrill of anticipation. Inertia is very often an enemy to progress. It is reasonable to be uncertain or fearful of change. It may take an act of bravery to face change with a positive spirit born out of wonder about what could lie ahead. The best candidates for office and the most effective holders of public office are those who are not afraid to challenge accepted theory or rules for a better outcome. This is as true in astronomy as it is in public administration.
Speaking of inertia and time, a brief sojourn into an actual and significant threat to our continued existence is in order. There are many millions of large chunks of rock capable over time of impacting our Earth. Some are large enough to destroy cities, counties, continents, or the planet.
We now have the technology, especially with very high-resolution cameras and surveillance satellites, to appreciate how very real this threat can be. The global effects of a large asteroid impact could change the very foundation of our species. Imagine a world where the credit cards don’t work, where you can’t get cash out of an ATM, where the power grid is disabled, and, heaven forbid, DirecTV or Dish TV does not function. There is a clear correlation between how far ahead we see a danger and our success in preventing or mitigating giant trouble. Conversely, if we pay no attention to major threats, we are not going to be able to act in time. The further out our strategic vision goes, the more time we have to prepare to intercept, mitigate, and deflect individual or worldwide risks.
In life, time is our most valuable asset. Just get older and you will see what I mean.
In our political world it is hard to rally support around long-range problem recognition or action, even though landing on the moon in 1969 demonstrated that it can be done!
Whether the issue is the decaying infrastructure of our daily lives, or the collision threat outlined above, when we are afraid to take a strategic long-term view, what is left is, thank you Sir Isaac, is short-term, tactical thinking, looking to the next election instead of the next generation, missing opportunities and wasting our most valuable resource — the most important “friend” we have in life — time.
So, there it is. This article isn’t really about astronomy. It is not really about some specific public policy need. It is not just about asteroid collision risks. It is about what we need most in our personal and national life — more time.
More time to spend with our children, with our spouses, careers, civic engagement and other things which bring us joy. Think of how much more of a sense of worth and legacy we could have if we just learn to appreciate and act on compelling strategic needs instead of foolishly believing that there is no such thing as inertia and that a future generation will take care of things.