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“Government” Isn’t a Technology and Can’t be Developed Like One

By July 30, 2015No Comments

It’s been a bad week for government and technology.

It was revealed this week that the medical records of over 300,000 Californians sat on unsecured servers … leaving everything from insurance claims to social security numbers available to anyone who wanted to Google it.

On the other side of the spectrum, Florida Governor Rick Scott admitted that months key emails from his transition team were deleted  … in violation of open records laws.

These are some pretty big “oopses,” although arguable no bigger than many of the technology glitches most of us encounter day-in and day-out.  In fact, a credible case can be made that government crashes a lot less than computers.

Still, would it help if government were run more like a technology company?

In a column called “What geeks can teach government,” William Eggers says yes.  The global director of public research at Deloitte, says that there would be significant advantages to a government that was willing to learn from software R&D.  He argues that government could be:

  • More modular:  “Large efforts such as homelessness prevention could be broken into smaller, loosely coupled initiatives, with the functions and goals of each clearly delineated. The components could be redesigned or jettisoned as needed to improve the overall effort.”
  • Beta tested:  “It would mean rapid iteration and scaling to meet shifting needs and demands — small prototypes and pilots, staged rollouts and allowance for small failures in an attempt to avert larger failures down the road. When Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City, education reform was at the top of his agenda. Through the use of charter schools, the city has been able to run essentially 99 different beta versions of education reform. As new models are tested, they can be tweaked, and ones that excel can be expanded.”
  • Easily uninstalled:  “for government programs, shutdown mechanisms often are inadequate or simply nonexistent. As one former federal CFO told us: “I can’t stress enough the importance of being able to cancel programs.”

There are interesting points, and I’m certainly with him on the idea that beta-testing innovative government programs at the small scale can yield large advantages in the future.

But the constant chorus that “government should be run more like a business” is always off-key – even if it’s a high-tech business that is on the cutting edge of finding new ways to digitize your life.  It’s not just that we could only wish that companies like Facebook and Google could be run more like government:  “the consent of the governed” is a far stronger protection for privacy and civic-mindedness than “the consent of the customer,” which as guarantees go ranks with “I am not a crook” and “we come in peace” in effectiveness.

It’s that government is fundamentally different than businesses, and these are meaningful distinctions.  Attempts to gloss over them lead to worse government, not better.

  • Government is a means to multiple, sometimes conflicting, ends:  a business (at least in the current model) really has only one goal – profit.  That unity of purpose makes the kind of modular structure Eggers touts a lot easier.  But government has many goals which have to be balanced against each other:  it needs to both promote manufacturing and protect the environment;  support freedom of expression and regulate communication;  balance budgets while providing a safety net.  An attempt to make government more modular will inevitably lead to crucial priorities getting ignored because they get in the way.  But that’s the point:  they get in the way because they are important.
  • Efficiency is not the most important value a government has:  because government needs to protect the rights of its citizens, it will inevitably serve as a road block to its own initiatives.  This is a feature, not a bug.  Lawsuits against police corruption get in the way of police efficiency;  challenges to eminent domain get in the way of efficient development;  protests against war get in the way of efficient war.  The fact that government can’t just do whatever it wants … the fact that it requires the consent of the governed … makes beta-testing a lot more difficult.  But it’s also what makes government worthwhile in the first place.
  • Democracy is necessarily messy:  Eggers assumes that we want efficiency in the first place – but try telling that to the voters.  They have their own ideas about the lives they want to live and the communities they want to live in … and the “good life” is not always the most efficient.  The fact that government has to listen to the people means that the most efficient outcome is not always the most optimal outcome … and that means that a streamlined ability to close down programs that aren’t efficient isn’t necessarily compatible with democratic government.

There’s no question that government will continue to use technology:  it may not embrace it as quickly as the private sector, but it’s a committed relationship.  According to surveys, 75 federal agencies have created “apps” to help citizens navigate government processes, and states have developed many more.  Meanwhile the city of Portland has recently concluded a year-long project with IBM to develop cutting edge software that can help cities create models of the impact policy changes will have on their development.  (The results were mixed:  they found the software helpful, but concluded that you can’t really model the real world like you would “Sim City.”)

But it’s a mistake to think of “government” as one more technology that can be run like Apple or Google.  Government is about people … not efficiency, not profit … and people resist being streamlined.  A system that can’t take that into account has no business trying to run their lives.

(This essay originally appeared on Rethinking Complexity)