NEW WAY INTERVIEW: Katherine Gehl
The business leader, innovator, thinker, do-er and reformer on what she's learned and what we need
I first met Katherine Gehl in 2017 on the heels of that momentous election which left a lot of people wondering, “how’d we get here?” We were at an early gathering of folks from various reform mindsets and political persuasions, trying to figure out if there were some cohesive strategies that could be employed to bring a New Way in American politics. There was a diversity of thought in the room - but one sentiment was universal: “We have to do better. This isn’t working and it’s not sustainable.”
One thing I have come to so deeply respect about Katherine over many years is that she doesn’t just talk about problems, she gets in the trenches to try and solve them. She has studied deeply, including her ground-breaking 2017 report co-authored with Michael Porter and published by the Harvard Business School: Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America. We talk about that in our interview.
I also love that Katherine looks for, in her words, solutions which are both “powerful and achievable.” You can read more about that below too - but here’s why it matters so much to me right now: we have to get wins for the New Way or it is just another group of people talking. We need candidates and reforms to win, not just show up. We need an ecosystem of operatives, thinkers, funders and candidates to emerge, grow and start governing. Katherine’s no-nonsense way of thinking about these needs has always challenged me.
And one final note about reform, reformers and how it all fits together. Too often in the New Way space, reformers and thinkers spend a lot of energy debating one another, funders follow their interests (as Katherine points out) and operatives follow funders. What is lost in this is deep, thoughtful, humble wrestling with what is actually working - and a recognition that in a nation as diverse as the United States, we might need a symphony of solutions, not a marching band hammering out a fight song no one knows the words to.
It’s why, for example, I have worked hard to maintain friendships with, and highlight the work of, competing thinkers and reformers. I am intentionally bringing them together in the same room for three days in April. Our work in charting a New Way in this moment has to figure out how to wire more and more of us together for the good.
I’m inspired, challenged and educated every time I interact with Katherine Gehl. And sometimes a little uncomfortable. I think you will be too. And that’s a good thing. Here’s our interview, unedited and in full.
NWP: You've been working in what I refer to as the New Way space for a long time. What first got you interested in charting a new way?
Though I’m working in political innovation full-time now, that’s my second career. I’m really an entrepreneur and I spent most of my career in the public sector. My last role was as the CEO of a $250 million food company in Wisconsin. And yes, we did make cheese. And that cheese led me to today. In 2013, I launched a major company strategy project. I was using all the classic strategy so I was very focused on industry structure and value creation so I could sell more cheese. At the same time, I was also deeply engaged in—and increasingly frustrated with—politics. This led to a lightbulb moment—or lightbulb question. How do the Democrats and the Republicans keep doing so well when their customers - voters - are so unhappy? I realized that unlike any industry I’ve ever worked in, in the politics industry, we don’t get innovation, results or accountability – the best of what healthy competition delivers. Fast forward. I originated what is now called Politics Industry Theory and the strategy for change in 2013. I sold my company in 2015. I asked Michael Porter to co-author the first written work on the theory in 2016—and we published in 2017.
NWP: You and Michael Porter co-authored and have advanced some of the most foundational reform research ever done. Tell us about why you did that, and the 2-3 most important things you've learned?
Many Americans are and have been disgusted and concerned about the dysfunction and abysmal results from Washington, D.C., and so were we. Too many people—including many pundits, political scientists, and politicians themselves—were laboring under a misimpression that our political problems are inevitable, or the result of a weakening of the parties, or due to the parties’ ideological incoherence, or because of an increasingly polarized American public. Those who focused on these reasons were looking in the wrong places. The result was that despite all the commentary and attention on politics in recent years, there was still no accepted strategy to reform the system and things kept getting worse. We needed a new approach. The most important things I’ve learned through this work are:
1. Nonprofit political reform organizations don't operate in an efficient marketplace. There is little incentive and little opportunity to bring a new idea to the table because there's no profit motive that helps separate the good ideas from “sounds good” ideas. I originally thought that I would contribute this politics industry theory as a way of looking at what was wrong and promote Final Five Voting as a solution so that reform organizations would decide that's what they want. It totally didn't work. Because organizations were for what their donors were already for. And donors were already for nonpartisan redistricting. Donors were already for RCV as a standalone. Donors were already for opening party primaries to all voters. Nobody was talking about competition. It just wasn't on the table. They just wanted to paper over the problems with RCV. There isn't an incentive for existing organizations to work to convince their donors of a completely unproven idea when their donors are perfectly happy giving money to the existing efforts. So I finally had to form a single purpose organization, which I now refer to as the National Campaign for Voting in order to distinguish this from other reforms.
2. The political reform industry is hobbled by partisanship. Even though there are practices which over time don't hurt or benefit one side or the other (e.g., gerrymandering - both sides do it whenever they can and it has benefited both sides over time), the money that is going into it in any given election cycle is completely related to what partisans believe it will do to their nearest term election results. Because Final Five Voting is not designed to change who wins elections, but is instead designed to change what winners do, I wanted to do everything I could to keep this from being partisan-ized from the start. And it's another reason why I formed my own organization, so that this issue could stand alone and not be associated with other supposedly nonpartisan efforts that everybody knows have legs only because someone thinks there's a short-term partisan gain.
3. Everybody wants Final Five voting. When you explain it to people, when you have the time to have a real dialog about it, nobody looks at me after that and says “yeah, no, I think I'll keep what I have.” Nobody says that. Now, that doesn't mean people aren't afraid of change and there isn't resistance. But people on every side, or no side, would love to be engaged in the political dialogue. No one says, “Yeah, thanks, but no thanks. I'm going to stick with what I have.” We're not that stupid. It's just not as hard as people think it is because voters and citizens are really smart. And they know that this is not the best we can do.
NWP: I've said I believe a new movement is truly afoot now - not just people trying things. I see collaboration and communication at new levels, and more openness to seeing the whole instead of just the parts. Do you agree? If not, what do you think can get us there?
I definitely agree that we have made major progress. I admit that I continue to be frustrated by what I view as too much attention spent on reform efforts that are not both powerful and achievable (and in certain cases are neither). I define powerful as being able to deliver real results and true representation. And I define achievable as able to be passed and make an impact within a matter of years, not decades or longer. I'm candid about my views and am always pleased when people are candid about theirs. I think that the continued push for Ranked Choice Voting on its own dramatically hurts our ability to wield this tool in its necessary role to support what really matters, which is competition in the general election.
NWP: What are you most hopeful about for the 24-25 election cycles? Most worried about?
I’m most hopeful that the ballot initiatives for Final Five Voting and Final Four Voting will be successful in multiple states. At this point, campaigns are on track to be on the ballot in Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana. And we continue to make substantive progress on our legislative initiative in Wisconsin. I am disappointed to see that we’re headed into a presidential election that seems likely to present two candidates that over 60% of voters don’t want for the start. It seems like a classic “lesser-of-two-evils” elections. Definitely not healthy competition! That is always bad for Democracy and is part of what Final Five Voting eliminates. I hope that the dissatisfaction of voters will have a positive outcome in the form of momentum for systemic changes.
You can learn more about Katherine’s work, and much of what is mentioned above at
https://gehlporter.com/ - and watch their explainer video below.
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