Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Qualitative Value Map of the President's Agenda

Image credit: Jonathan Newton / THE WASHINGTON POST

I listened to the "pre-game" coverage of the Inaugural address on NPR. What I heard were lots of reasons why we should not expect much from this address. Historically, Inauguration speeches are not meant to inspire much more than a healthy respect for a unique American trademark: the peaceful transition of power. Beyond that, we could expect some thoughts about reaching across the aisle and working together for a better tomorrow, but not much in the way of substance.


As evidence of these low expectations, some Americans are still wondering whether Beyonce lip-synced. If she lip synced, she synced her lips so expertly as to fool me. And while I admire authenticity, I also value risk management, and I have moved beyond this question.

Speaking of risk management, I will also admit that I had a morbid curiosity about whether Chief Justice Roberts would again muff the oath of office. Armed with a note card and an abundance of caution, he performed perfectly. One day, I hope to learn what flicker of thought momentarily interrupted the President's concentration, but I am prepared to wait for that answer, too. His verbal stumble was evidence of humanity, and nothing to dwell upon.

Of much more significance to me is the skillful way in which the President leveraged the moment. With no concern over his political future now that he's in his final term, he could afford to offer a bolder vision for America, and that he certainly did do. The fact that he gave his address on Martin Luther King, Jr Day was significant as well. He invoked Dr King with great effect. I got caught up on the passion and unexpected specificity of the President's remarks.

As a concerned citizen in middle age, I listened intently to the President's address. I heard a clear Purpose statement, drawn from the Constitution. I heard the compelling language of Ends, Ways, and Means. I also heard a vision for a progressive agenda--a call to action. As a scholar-practitioner of Value-Focused Thinking, I responded to his clear and compelling drumbeat:

Our Journey is not complete until

  • Boom, 
  • Boom, 
  • Boom...

Making a Qualitative Value Map of the President's Agenda: 

A Value-Focused Thinking look at President Obama's 2013 Inaugural Address

I have applied my VFT craft to the President's words and repackaged them below as if I were going to use them to make a math model of the President's agenda. Here is my breakdown of the Inauguration address in Value-Focused Thinking terms.

Fundamental Objective

aka Purpose, equivalent to the “Ends” in Ends = Ways + Means

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”


aka Desired Endstate / How we will know when we have achieved the Fundamental Objective

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.  For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. 

Objective Function(s)

aka Ways (we seek to Maximize these functions)
  • Freedom:
  • Equality:
  • Initiative: youth and drive
  • Transparency: diversity and openness
  • Entrepreneurial spirit: an endless capacity for risk (?)
  • A gift for reinvention?  (I think this means starting over or re-framing)
  • Skepticism of central authority (balance of power, gov’t works for the people)
  • Limited government (all society’s ills cannot be cured through government alone)
  • Celebration of initiative and enterprise
  • Insistence on hard work and personal responsibility
  • Being true to our founding documents / creed / principles (a reference to the Constitution, used at least 4 times)

Means Objectives

these are the “Means” by which we will maximize the Objective Functions “Ways” and achieve the Fundamental Objective “Ends”)

For our journey is not complete until (Specified)

  • Pay equality: our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts
  • Advancing gay rights: our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well 
  • Voting reform: no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote
  • Immigration reform: showing more tolerance toward illegal immigrants: we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country
  • Ending gun violence: all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm
  • Preserving the social welfare safety net
  • Acting to stop climate change.

For our journey is not complete until (Implied)

  • Infrastructure: a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce
  • Education: a modern economy requires schools and colleges to train our workers
  • Market regulation: a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play
  • Social Safety Net / Emergency Management: a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune
  • Diplomacy / Statecraft: A decade of war is now ending (peace dividend)
  • Economy: An economic recovery has begun (and must continue)
  • Environmental Protection: respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations
  • America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class (tax reform)
  • We must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes:  tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice
  • A little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own
  • Remake our government
  • Revamp our tax code
  • Reform our schools
  • Empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher
  • We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. 
  • Pragmatism: We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect
  • We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit
  • Citizenship: citizens have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals

If asked, I would make a Qualitative Value Model of the President's vision. The next steps in my process of transforming the President's speech into a tool for strategic communication, math model would be the following:

  • Condense the Means Objectives to the collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive few. Try for 7, plus or minus 2.
  • Develop Evaluation Measures for each Means Objective. These Evaluation Measures come in four types: leading or lagging measures, and measures of performance or effectiveness. The best model has a mix of the four types of Evaluation Measures.
  • Affirm the data sources for each Evaluation Measure and map the data to the measures.
  • In consultation with the Office of the President, develop Value Functions, which are like grading curves for converting data to scores. 
  • Add in a capability for Monte Carlo Simulation.  
  • Maintain the model by adjusting the weights and thresholds as required. 

I am looking forward to the more policy-oriented State of the Union address, where I hope to hear more details about how the President would implement his agenda during his second term. The odds of his success are not great, given the fact that the new Congress is not a lot different, in terms of party distribution, from the last one. The biggest advantage the President has in promoting an activist agenda is the simple fact that his performance rating has climbed into the 50s while Congress has sunk even lower than it had been before, if that can be imagined.

The President's approval rating has more influence on Congressional outcomes than the clarity of his speeches. Why? Because in this constitutional republic, concerned citizens are still in charge. People are fed up with gridlock in Congress. If the President's vision for the future is not the best, it is no longer sufficient to mock it or block it. someone m?

Anyone can lip sync a good speech.  What really matters is who listens to the words, and what the listeners do in response to them. If listeners continue to focus on delivery, we're doomed to more partisan rhetoric. Let's turn our focus to content. Let's get pragmatic so we can move forward together.

A Qualitative Value Map helps by delivering the following:

  • definition of what the objective looks like
  • how we will know when we have arrived
  • how we will measure success
  • how we know where we are relative to the objective
  • which investments would likely produce the most favorable impact on the system score.

I wonder why we don't already have such a powerful tool available. If you think a Qualitative Value Map would be a good thing, let me know, and I'll get right on it!

A transcript of President Obama 2013 inaugural address is HERE.