The “Grandiosity Test”: Is Your Government more about Big Ideas than Making Things Work?


Marc Dones, the Director of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, called it quits last week. The KCRHA had been the hoped-for answer to homelessness in the region. The idea, a good one, was to get all the players at the same table to come up with regional responses. But the RHA has been mired in dysfunction during Dones’ three-year tenure.

At the Seattle Times Danny Westneat asks, “What’s the point of the RHA really,” and is it worth keeping?

It’s a good question, and column, by Westneat, who has been covering the homelessness issue a lot of late and doing so from a more practical, less ideological, perspective. In his critique of the KCRHA, Westneat makes a good point with broader implications. The RHA under Dones leadership has framed the issues surrounding homelessness in such grand and sweeping terms that actual on-the-ground solutions got overlooked, underplayed or went MIA. Westneat’s apt word for this approach is “grandiosity.”

In Dones’ resignation statement. he writes, “In order to do better, we must all commit to telling the whole truth, not just about the work now, but also how generations of systemic racism and oppression, decisions made by people in positions of power, brought us here.”

“But,” observes Westneat, “it’s not a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s supposed to build shelter and help get homeless people up and off the streets.”

“This same pretense,” continues Westneat, “lives strong in other arms of government, too, like the Seattle School Board.” They take it upon themselves to confront society’s most serious ills, some of which, as Dones points out, are titanic and generational. It’s well meaning, but the more immediate, incremental tasks can get left undone. Like boosting reading scores. Or even the most basic ones, such as paying the bills.

Westneat again: “I would like to see the future RHA focus more on nuts and bolts like this, even if it isn’t the whole truth.”

One might also include, not only the KCRHA and School Board, but the Seattle City Council, at least in its recent incarnations, in this critique. The progressive social critique of patriarchy, systemic racism, the history of policing and capitalism — which has some truth in it — is so broad-scale that it overwhelms more modest efforts to make progress.

Another way to put this is that such arms of government need to make progress on the nuts and bolts, on fixing the streets, so to speak, if they are to have credibility on larger social issues.

In my world of ministry and church leadership we call this “paying the rent.” That is, a newish pastor does well to pay attention to a congregation’s expressed and felt needs in order to gain the trust and credit to take on larger issues.

You may think the big issue is the dealing with “the end of Christendom” and the role of the church in the post-Christian, post-modern world, but if the congregation is saying, “our Sunday School and program for kids isn’t working,” or “our stewardship program is in the crapper,” you are well-advised to pay attention to such laments. They shouldn’t be your end-point, but neither should you neglect such nuts and bolts issues while casting your big vision. Both — a larger picture and nuts and bolts — are needed. Leadership involves finding the right balance.

But often today, as with the KCRHA, at least some clergy see, or claim to see, the forest but miss the actual trees. Another way my mentors put it to me was, “If you haven’t been at the hospital bed sides or at the kitchen tables during the week, you got no business in the pulpit on Sunday.”

Dones and the RHA gave us lofty rhetoric but would have nothing to do with tiny homes as an interim solution. In the era of the Woke critique of society we’ve lost sight of the fact that governance is seldom glamorous, but is more often making progress on incremental steps, responding to felt needs and implementing solutions that people can see and feel.

You do that and then, maybe, you gain enough trust and credit to take on bigger issues. You don’t do that and you just contribute to the larger distrust of government.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. Grandiosity vs. on-the-ground is a false dichotomy, I think. It’s not that there are no facts to back up either ‘side,’ so to speak. It’s that thinking and speaking in those terms creates an impasse, making analysis and discussion difficult, if not impossible. I think connections, specific ones, must be made between the larger issues and the smaller, but equally important issues, so that actions that mean something can be undertaken. I have no illusions about the difficulty of doing what I’ve proposed. It will take courage, thoughtfulness, humility (as in ‘nobody has all the answers’), willingness to cooperate and an abundance of hard work. I think there are many people in this area who can do this, if only they will choose to do so. We, the people, regardless of our situations, deserve and need better than the current status quo.

  2. Too many well meaning people seem drawn to the most grandiose causes primarily for their lack of performance accountability.

  3. Anthony Robinson is spot on. I applaud his common sense and ask the Mayor and city council to take it to heart. I’ve seen too many years of dithering while the city falls apart block by block.

  4. Save the World. It’s hardly a new idea. No surprise that these local wannabes pick up this burned-out torch. Make your own list. Here’s a start: Hitler, Jesus Christ, Torquemada, Karl Marx, John Frum, Chairman Mao, Mohammed, Donald Trump, Robert Bellarmine, Martin Luther, Stalin, Jefferson Davis and……Tactics vary, but the intension
    is always the same: impose your will over others in order to dominate.

  5. I would add to the list local philanthropy, which thinks globally not locally and also wants to project the donor’s ego into a never-done-before idea. As one observer put it, “Seattle folks with money need to paint on a big canvas.” It used to be when a local person made a lot of money they thought first of their city — creating parks, opera houses, botanical gardens, scholarships, buildings. Now the virus of the Gates Foundation — change the world — is infecting many of the suddenly rich.

    • Thank you for your comment. It’s not as if everything that ‘needs doing’ in this area has ‘been done.’

    • Thank you for writing what I have been thinking for years. Yes, children in Africa need help. So do children in Washington state.

      Paid way too much for Microsoft products over the last 35 years, as did everyone else. How difficult would it be to take the fruits of those profits and fully fund school lunches for every child in the state?

  6. Local government’s job is to “Fix the streets “- City, KCRHA, School District. Or, as Anthony Robinson put’s it, “pay the rent.”
    Sad that voter’s don’t hold them accountable.

  7. “You don’t do that and you just contribute to the larger distrust of government.”

    I guess so, but isn’t it weird? You hire them, in theory they spend their term trying to do what you want, and then you throw up your hands and declare for larger distrust of government. It doesn’t exactly add up. Possible explanations:

    1. They fool you every time, and sell out to special interests etc.
    2. It really was what you (the majority of you who are politically involved at all) wanted, and the distrust is not that real (for the majority.)
    3. There isn’t any realistic hope they can deliver everything you want.

    I think #3 is closest to the truth. Big problems that arouse your discontent, tend to have their roots in difficult trade-offs that no one wants to make. Seattle’s gold rush “success”, for example. So you get no candidates for office offering realistic solutions, because voters prefer to be lied to with painless fixes and broad, flag waving appeals to right thinking.


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