Integrity at Scale

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* Book: Integrity at Scale: Big Answers to America’s Challenges. By Steven Howard Johnson.

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Steven Johnson:

"Integrity at Scale draws its title from a simple thought. As kids, our parents taught us to accept moral responsibility for our behaviors and their consequences. If we misbehaved and harmed others, we were to accept responsibility and change our behaviors. Because most Americans live this way in our personal lives, our neighborhoods often thrive.

Somehow we have never learned to take this principle to scale. Vast industries refuse to accept moral responsibility. They conduct operations on a vast scale; they generate harmful consequences on a vast scale.

Today’s America is not a competent self-governing republic. The nation’s core assets are in trouble; its business practices aren’t responsibly designed; its public policies are full of holes; its sense of purpose is badly askew.

Tomorrow’s America could be a competent nation. The American people would have to step up to a new and more responsible set of roles. Think Large Hat citizenship, not Small Hat citizenship. Put the national interest first, ahead of all our special interests. Recognize the pervasive challenge of scale, and insist that even the largest industries and markets are to operate by principles of integrity.

A wise nation recognizes its dual nature. On the one hand, it comprises a rich mix of core assets – environmental capital, human capital, economic capital, civic capital. On the other hand, it also comprises a rich mix of operating sectors, private, public, and non-profit. If its operating sectors practice integrity at scale, its core assets will remain healthy.

In foolish nations, many of the operating sectors practice corruption at scale rather than integrity at scale. Environmental assets deteriorate; human capital deteriorates; economic capital loses its vibrancy; civic capital is corrupted.

Today’s America leans toward the foolish side.

In one domain after another, Integrity at Scale examines America’s habits of chronic failure:

  • Sustainability deeply puzzles the nation. Hardly anyone thinks rigorously about what it really means.
  • The energy industry is bent on irreversibly damaging the world’s oceans and the world’s climate.
  • The finance industry cannot be trusted to behave responsibly.
  • The medical industry overshoots international benchmarks by a trillion dollars a year.
  • The nation’s manufacturing sector is withering; both parties are complicit in its decline.
  • In public schools across America, children of poverty are badly shortchanged.
  • American cities have choked themselves in rush hour traffic, not because they had to, but because they couldn’t be bothered to imagine a better way.
  • Ordinary Americans have watched their income gains in real dollars slow to a creep; those at the top prosper as never before. Economic practices that favored the American Dream were switched off during Reagan’s presidency, to be replaced with a new standard that’s best described as Gated Capitalism.
  • Once America elected Congresses that practiced fiscal responsibility (from the forties through the sixties). In 1971 that self-discipline was lost; Congress has authored significant deficits almost every year since then.
  • The advent of chronic deficits coincides with the emergence of modern gerrymandering. The Supreme Court set the stage by ordering all Congressional districts within a state to have equal populations. State legislatures responded with shameless gerrymandering, fashioning districts that cater to partisan ideologues. No wonder deficit spending has become Washington’s norm.
  • Neither party has a responsible answer to the doubling of America’s elderly population and the fiscal crisis at Social Secruity.
  • Neither party knows how to groom national leaders who truly understand America’s 21st century challenges.

The takeaway is simple. America’s incompetence is pervasive, chronic – and dangerous. If today’s habits persist, America should expect to be blind-sided again and again.

If the United States is to prepare itself well for the future, today’s faulty paradigms will have to be set aside.

Integrity at Scale steps the reader through these issues. The aim is simple – Win readers to the view that competence matters. Deeply. And win readers to a robust vision of a truly capable civic paradigm."


Integrity Often Disappears at Scale

Steven Johnson:

"What puzzles us, as citizens, is that we no longer sense the vitality of integrity as a moral code when our focus shifts away from individuals – the realm of the personal – to the realm of large institutions. Template replication doesn’t necessarily imply integrity replication. In the realm of the Small, integrity holds our attention; in the realm of the Large, integrity often vanishes.  Does America have an invisible barrier that shields the realms of business and government from the basic principles of integrity that we know as individuals?  There seems to be.  Walk through the doors of large institutions and the decencies of family and neighborhood seem to lose their hold as a living presence.  Special interests quarrel with special interests, sometimes with extraordinary rudeness.  How are we to explain this?  Why is template replication at vast scale seemingly exempt from the code that we are to take moral responsibility for the consequences of our behaviors?

Great distance is part of the reason.  While I can “see” the consequences of my own behaviors, often I cannot “see” the consequences of an institution’s behaviors.  Too far away.  Too indirect.  If a decision taken in New York has harmful consequence in Papua-New Guinea, or in Ecuador, how is anyone in America to see those consequences? Massive complexity adds to the difficulty.  If hundreds or thousands of organizations take actions that produce consequences in numberless locations worldwide, how are their behaviors and consequences to register with anyone? 

And responsibility is diffuse.  If an organization in one country behaves in ways that cause harm in another, how are the citizens of the first country to know that a wrong has been committed to the citizens of another?  And how are they to give any feedback?  And to whom?  A corporation doesn’t have a stern mother to call it to heel.

Even if damaging consequences are plainly visible, one must still ask what behaviors are to be changed?  And by whom?  To lift a line from a Broadway show, “Is a puzzlement.”  No wonder America’s basic decency gets fractured and sidetracked by activities and behaviors that take place at vast scale.

This line of thinking helps us understand what’s missing from our capacity to function effectively as a self-governing republic.  We have yet to set our sights on integrity at scale. Integrity at scale is the modern competence we need in our world of template replication.  Integrity at scale is essential to our competence as a self-governing nation, integrity at scale is essential to our competence as grassroots Americans. 

Integrity at scale is the fruit of following a simple rule.  “When we accept moral responsibility for the consequences of our behaviors, we practice integrity.”  But we must take this moral rule to heart, at scale.  So if you will pardon the repetition, add the term “at scale” to each part of this moral rule. “When we accept moral responsibility, at scale, for the consequences, at scale, of our replication behaviors, at scale, we practice integrity.  At scale.”  

When a large institution accepts responsibility for the consequences of its actions, and when it adjusts its behaviors accordingly, it can rightfully claim to be practicing integrity at scale.

What is true for a specific institution is true as well for an entire industry or government agency.  And what is true for industries and agencies is true for the nation.  As Americans, we will know we have mastered the arts of self-governing competence once all our major institutions accept Moral Responsibility for the Consequence of their Behaviors.   We will be a competent people; ours will be a competent self-governing nation.   “Integrity at Scale.”  It is a powerful concept, one that asks for our attention at several levels.

Integrity at scale is partly a design standard.  One applies it to the templates that define a single institution or a single industry.  Templates that embody integrity at scale will guide institutions toward behaviors that keep America safe and prosperous.

Viewed from a related angle, integrity at scale is a performance standard as well.  An industry that applies integrity at scale as a design standard will perform more honorably and safely.  Had integrity at scale been both a design standard for the mortgage banking industry, and then its performance standard, the American economy would be in much better shape. At a still broader level, integrity at scale is a normative standard, an ethical standard, an expectation for modern society as a whole.  It isn’t sufficient just to have one or two industries embrace integrity at scale while other industries engage in damaging misbehavior at scale.  Modern society cannot work properly unless integrity at scale is a broadly accepted normative standard.

Integrity at scale is not simply a standard and a norm; it is a spur to civic competence.  Is modern society powerful and complex?  Driven by engines of replication, often beneficial, but capable of causing great damage at vast scale?  Yes, and yes.  But a competent public responds to these challenges by insisting that integrity isn’t just a matter between parents and their teenagers; integrity is a matter for the American people and the vast institutions that exist to serve our needs.  Modern institutions, like teenagers, need to accept moral responsibility for the consequences of their behaviors.  A competent public knows this, and holds even its largest institutions accountable for the consequences of their behaviors.

Design standard.  Performance standard.  Normative standard.  Spur to civic competence.  Integrity at scale is all of these.  It lights our future."

The Asset View

"We live in a world of assets that we have long celebrated.  “Oh beautiful for spacious skies and amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain.”  “From the redwood forests, to the gulfstream waters...”

There are so many kinds of assets that make America beautiful.  To simplify things, here we will address four primary sets of assets.  Our environmental capital includes the streams and rivers that supply water, the forests that are home to wildlife, the farmlands that supply food, the raw materials that feed industry, and more.  Our human capital is rich with family members, neighbors, citizens, employers, employees, and volunteers.  Our economic capital covers farms, workshops, factories, offices, stores, equipment, inventory, financial infrastructure, contract law and more.  Our civic capital is stocked with our constitutions, our contract laws, our legislative institutions, our public, our advocacy infrastructure, our political parties, our elected officials, our laws, regulations, courts, prosecutors, news media, and more.   Every society is built around its core assets, and an asset view gives us a new set of lenses.

If we imagine an America in which society’s core assets are generally healthy and growing stronger, we have imagined an America heading toward the common good. If we imagine an America whose core assets are in troubled conditions and growing weaker, we have imagined an America that’s drifting away from the common good. 

The common good isn’t a fixed point.  It isn’t a societal version of healthy cholesterol or a healthy Body Mass Index.  The common good is a directional concept.  A society whose core assets are improving is moving toward the common good; a society whose core assets are deteriorating is moving away from the common good.

Core assets have even more to tell us.  They are the vital inventory from which a nation assembles itself. Though they are not the sort of inventory one finds in a warehouse, inventories they still are.  Their health is essential to our flourishing.  No nation can long afford to have its core assets in trouble, its environmental capital weakening, its human capital suffering, its economic capital deteriorating, or its civic capital corrupt and incompetent.  Core assets are to be appreciated, treasured, and protected.  It is in our national interest to protect our core assets; it undermines our national interest to squander our core assets."

Balance Sheets for Human and Civic Capital

On Human Capital:

"Though we may have mixed feelings about using numbers to measure human well being, the Human Capital Balance Sheet is no less important than the other three. The Human Capital balance sheet is intended as a tool by which we illuminate our strengths and our failings.  Physical well being?  Social well being?  Educational and cultural well being?  Financial well being?  Each question opens up a window of understanding."

On Civic Capital:

"Civic capital is indeed one of society’s core assets.  It takes in everything from highways and property records to the post office and the nation’s state universities.  And much of what is properly understood as civic capital has a dual role – many pieces of civic capital also function as societal sectors in their own right.  Look at society from an asset perspective, and we will see civic capital.  Our body of law is a civic asset. Our Congress as a constitutionally defined institution is a civic asset.  Look at society from a sector perspective, and we will see public sector institutions.  This year’s Congress at work, adjusting the law, is an operating sector.   

Before getting to specifics, though, let’s set the stage by likening the process of democracy to the process of change in a learning organization.  Many organizational environments are understood as learning environments.  A smart corporation learns from its environment, modifies its behaviors, and continues to thrive.  An effective military learns from its battles.  It reviews its experience, critiques its successes and failures, and adjusts accordingly.  In medicine, an effort is being made to establish evidence based medicine.  Capture learning from across thousands of diseases and millions of patients, distill the lessons into computer assisted diagnostic tool, and give doctors stronger tools for diagnosing even the most elusive of diseases.  Science has always been a learning discipline:  Postulate a hypothesis, design a test, gather measurements, critique the results.  Democracy in a very rough way is also a learning organization.  Experience a complaint.  Pass a law.  See if the complaint goes away.  If it does, leave the law alone.  If it doesn’t, change the law. 

We are in challenging times.  The capacity to learn is important everywhere, in civic life as in many other areas of life.  What if we think of America not merely as a democracy, but as a learning democracy? 

A nation without a capacity to learn will see its competencies wither; a nation with a capacity to learn has a chance to improve its competencies considerably. 

Now to the issue of balance sheet design.  A Civic Capital Balance Sheet will serve our needs well if it captures ten primary elements: Basic Foundation, Infrastructure Essentials, Energetic Citizens, Capable Elected Officials, Honest and Professional Administration, Honest Tax System, Fiscal Responsibility, Responsible Jurisprudence, National Security, and a Capacity for Practicing Integrity at Scale."