The central recommendation in Sen. John McCain’s dramatic floor speech pleading for bipartisanship was for a return to “regular order.” This seemingly arcane procedural reference has significant implications, not only for legislative proceedings in Washington, but also for corporate communication and reputation management.
Regular order refers to following the Senate rules, which provide for open process and debate. It ensures that everyone has an opportunity to be heard, to offer amendments, and to call for votes under the rules. It provides that committees hold hearings, that members consider the merits of each issue, that they debate and vote and let the majority rule while respecting the rights of the minority.
The American system of government, with its three equal branches and the rules which govern each, was designed to ensure that no single person or party could dominate. As Sen. McCain said, “…our arcane rules and customs are deliberately intended to require broad cooperation to function well at all. The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America's problems and to defend her from her adversaries.”
The extremists on both sides who have equated the act of compromise to a violation of sacrosanct principles have essentially ensured that nothing gets done. Or, if something does get done, that it lasts only until the other side can muster a majority to overturn it. Perhaps worst of all, it keeps good ideas that can make things better from seeing the light of day.
It wasn’t always this way. Most of the major legislative achievements that form the bedrock of the success of the American experiment resulted from the arduous process of seeking consensus among well-intended, but often highly partisan and ideological opponents.
The Social Security Act of 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Clean Air Act of 1970, the National Energy Act of 1978, the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 – all of these were subjected to months or even years of hearings and debate. Amendments were offered and defeated or passed as members sought to bend the process toward their preferred result.
In the end, almost no one was completely satisfied, but there was enough support in both parties to ensure that the focus became how to ensure the success of, rather than to repeal, the new law. The adoption of the Affordable Care Act with votes from only one party, and the attempt to repeal it with votes only from the other party, actually is an anomaly.
The lesson for corporate communicators is this: When our enterprises are willing to listen to opposing views, to take into account ideas advanced by disparate stakeholders rather than to push forward in the arrogant belief that we are always right, we not only gain support, but we often achieve better outcomes.
We find that we are able to adopt the good ideas from others and to abandon policies that seemingly made sense from a parochial point of view, but actually failed to consider their impact on people we should care about.
Many companies take a formal approach to stakeholder engagement that encompasses stakeholder mapping – essentially taking inventory of the stakeholders who have an interest in the company – and establishing formal mechanisms to engage with them. This includes tracking and responding to their activity on social media, as well as face-to-face dialogue in which both sides have an opportunity to listen and be heard.
These processes are analogous to the Congressional hearings, legislative markups and floor debates that are referred to with the term, regular order. Of course, companies retain their own governance structures that involve shareholder elections of the board and board oversight of management. Stakeholders who are not shareholders don’t get a formal vote on corporate policies, but wise business leaders take the wide range of views into account in their decision-making processes.