Institutional Vehicles

In a public policy class, I had a professor once ask, “What is an institution?” One student responded that another professor once answered that question by stating that an institution was something you could kick. That’s true for some institutions (you can kick the supreme court, the city hall, and the local police department), but not all. We recognize marriage as an institution but you can’t kick it, and you certainly can’t kick equal protection under the law even though you theoretically could kick the actual paper on which the 14th amendment was written. Our institutions are sometimes physical buildings (or housed in them), but they are often processes, ideas, and systemic structures that guide our interactions, thoughts, and societies.


Our institutions only exist and function because we chose to place both trust and authority in our institutions. They can only operate when those within them and those who recognize them from the outside are aligned and coordinated together to recognize and legitimize action and outcomes from our institutions. In the book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak explain what this means as problem-solving and initiative-taking move from Federal levels of governance to local levels of governance. They write, “New Localism refers to multi-sectoral networks that work together to solve problems, as well as the institutional vehicles they invent to get things done.”


Coalition building is an important part of politics, but it is also just an important part of life in general. If you want your family to go to Tahiti for the holidays instead of Grandma’s house, then you need to build the right family coalition to get everyone to agree. If you want to work on a specific project in the office, if you want to do a job a certain way, and if you want to reorganize the workplace, you need to build coalitions to get people on board to follow your direction. Coalition building is super complex at the national level, but at the local level where a smaller handful of actors can generate a bigger (relative) push, then coalition building is possible and creating or inventing institutional vehicles to move policy can be a powerful tool.


Networks are key in new localism because they open the possible avenues for movement via new institutional vehicles. Connections and shared goals behind key stakeholders make new localism possible with coalitions created through networks of like-minded community leaders. Those who have an interest in seeing reinvention, seeing successful policy development, and seeing adaptable and resilient communities can come together to form new coalitions, pulling people from varying public, civic, and private sector organizations. These groups can then think about the structures shaping our lives, our decisions, and our interactions, and how new institutions can alter the status quo to solve problems in new ways that are unique to a given city, metro, or region.

Transactional Politics

Jonathan Rauch argues that transactional politics is a sign of a well functioning political system in his book, Political Realism. In his eyes, transactional politics, or favor trading and an attitude of “I’ll support your policy here if you support my policy over there,” is key to how things actually get done in government. In his eyes, this mindset is not a dirty and evil nature of politics but more of a necessary ingredient to legislative functioning. Without transactional politics, coalitions cannot be built and finding support between legislators and across bills becomes nearly impossible. According to Rauch, steps that the United States has taken to reduce transactional politics have actually made governance more difficult, if not completely impossible.


Rauch writes, “Transactional politics is not always appropriate or effective, but a political system which is not reliably capable of it is a system in a state of critical failure.” As much as we don’t like to believe it, our legislators and elected officials are humans. They have the same motivations and drives that the rest of us have, and therefore need a little extra help in building coalitions and creating groups to support political agendas. I am currently reading The Elephant In The Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, and the authors argue that the politics of coalition building is a necessary ingredient in human societies, and is literally one of the driving forces of human evolution that set us on a different course from the rest of the animal kingdom. If we take away a system that allows for trades and back-scratching, then we take away part of our human nature and we limit incentives for group bonding, cooperation, and legislative wheel greasing.


Transactional politics does look shady, and we would like our legislative motives to be pure rather than self-interested, or influenced by favors and favor repayments, or driven by the human desire to fit in with a group. Ultimately, however, stable political systems operate well when reacting to human nature in a more flexible manner. As long as the waste and excesses of transactional politics are small and can be generally viewed as serving the public interest, then transactional politics help create a stable system that is able to accomplish the will of the people. Abuse of the system and overtly political projects that violate the mirage of rational politics threaten the system and should be limited, but this is something that societies in the past have managed by grabbing the low hanging fruit of overt political waste or fraud. Without transactional politics however, we end up in a place where governance is impossible and the public becomes frustrated by entrenched ideology and political fighting. Coalitions become increasingly volatile as middle ground solutions are impossible to pursue, because coalitions cannot be built on trades and favors for legislative districts. When transactional politics is impossible, what becomes the main driving force of politics is not getting what you can from the political grab bag of goodies for your district, but instead is adherence to strict political and ideological values, making actual governance more challenging.