Gov 2.0 vs. the Beast of Bureaucracy

by Andrew McAfee on September 10, 2010

If Tim O’Reilly didn’t exist, the technology industry would have to invent him. He knows everybody, can explain anything to anyone, helps us understand where things are headed, and convenes diverse groups of people to think about talk about the big topics.

He does all this while maintaining a sense of enthusiasm that I usually see only among people waiting in line for the next release of Halo. Tim likes technology for its own sake, but he’s more fundamentally enamored of what it can do — how it can open up new territory, improve people’s lives, and address vexing problems. After more than 30 years of running O’Reilly Media he exudes the vibe of “this is so cool” that all of us geeks remember from the first time we sat down in front of a computer (and for whatever it’s worth, I think he’s exactly right; this remains so cool.).

Tim brought a bunch of us together at the Gov 2.0 Summit earlier this week to discuss how the geek toolkit is being used to improve the work of government. A lot of the talks are available online at O’Reilly’s YouTube channel (my talk with Tim is here), and I encourage you to check them out. The best of them, like Carl Malamud’s and Ellen Miller‘s, are inspirational (and yes, that word is terribly overused).

The central impression the Summit left on me was of a dedicated and tenacious group of people waging war on bureaucracy, which Javier Pascual Salcedo defined as “the art of making the possible impossible.” The government doesn’t have a monopoly on bureaucracy, of course, but it does have pretty good market share. A capitalist theorist would say this is largely because competition culls bureaucracy and other inefficiencies, and governments face few or no competitors for their services.

Wherever government bureaucracy springs from, there’s too much of it, and the Gov 2.0 movement is about using new technologies to chip away at it —  to kill the monster with a thousand cuts. My biggest question in the wake of the Summit is, is this movement going to succeed? Or is the monster of bureaucracy just too big, tough, and thick-skinned to be killed or maimed?

Let’s look first at the reasons to be optimistic:

No politician is going to come out against Gov 2.0, and most are genuinely enthusiastic about it. There are sharp disagreements these days about what activities the government should and shouldn’t be involved in (bailing out automakers, banks, and homeowners; stimulating the economy; striving for universal health care; waging foreign wars), but all our elected officials agree that whatever our government does, it should be as efficient as possible about it. They’re also going to agree (with only a few exceptions) that the data collected by the government belongs to the American people and should be made available to them.

There now exists a fantastic set of digital tools to make government data and services available, and to make the work of the state more open, transparent, and participative. The idea of ‘government as platform‘ that Tim has been so eloquent about is not a pipe dream; it’s feasible right now, and is only going to get easier to realize thanks to relentless technology improvement and innovation.

There are people out there, both inside and outside the federal workforce, who have both the will and the chops needed to do battle with bureaucracy. I got to listen to a bunch of them at the Summit, and came away deeply grateful for them. There are some true public servants out there, and we’re lucky to have them.

But wow, are they fighting an uphill battle. Let’s look at a few of the few of the reasons why the bureaucracy might win.

The first is simple inertia. Change is just plain hard, and it’s easier to ignore the need for it and keep doing the same thing. As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith said “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

The rest of the reasons are more cynical. They assume that bureaucrats actually know that some change would be good for America and its people, but don’t find that sufficient grounds for doing anything. Because they’re lazy, or obsessed with hiding their dirty laundry or growing their turf, or making money in the current environment, or in the pocket of someone with deep pockets.

As they fight reform and innovation, bureaucracies have a few huge advantages. First, they’re necessary. Max Weber, their first great scholar, wrote that “However many people complain about the ‘red tape’, it would be sheer illusion to think for a moment that continuous administrative work can be carried out except by means of officials working in offices.”

Second, they have an astonishing ability to perpetuate themselves and grow. The author Dale Dauten observed that “Bureaucracy gives birth to itself and then expects maternity benefits.” What’s even more galling is that it normally gets them, as public choice theory has helped explain. Bureaucracies can expand until they become truly Kafkaesque —  ”a giant mechanism operated by pygmies,” to use Balzac’s wonderful, scary image.

Third, because they’re both necessary and self-perpetuating, they can often just wait out elected officials and internal and external reformers. A well-established technique for resisting change is to agree wholeheartedly with the need, and to propose careful study, planning, and deliberation. By the time all of this is finished, so is the term in office of the person desiring innovation.

So who, on balance, has the stronger position: the bureaucrats or the advocates of Gov 2.0 and other reforms? I honestly don’t know. Like Tim, I’m a big technology optimist, but I also recognize how daunting the tasks are here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts — should we be optimistic or pessimistic about Gov 2.0? Leave a comment, please, and let us know what you think, and why.

I want to end this post with an excerpt from the Summit that underscores how important Gov 2.0 is. It’s easy to think that it’s just a movement about filing taxes more efficiently, or getting easier access to weather and census data. It’s easy to think, in other words, that it’s a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘gotta have.’

It’s a gotta have. Peter Levin of the Department of Veterans Affairs candidly described the state of affairs at the VA:

“…It’s very manual, and it’s very paper-bound… a year ago, if you had an application for claims disability, you could expect to wait on average about 160 days. That’s a number that’s going up right now; it’s probably worse today than it was a year ago. The number that’s commonly reported in the newspapers is about a million claims in backlog… [and] that number’s going up…  [A year ago] if you were interested in the status of your application —  and keep in mind these were people who served our country honorably and have some kind of disability, many of them catastrophic… — [they had to] come in to a regional office and ask, and maybe they would be told, and maybe they wouldn’t be told.”

The VA has rolled out an ebenefits resource where veterans can instantly see the status of their claims, and the agency is to be applauded for this Gov 2.0 innovation. But the overall lack of state-of-the art digital tools at the VA, and the persistence of a bureaucracy that takes more than 160 days to let someone know if they’ll receive disability payments for the limbs they lost in Iraq or Afghanistan is not a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s a moral stain on the country. Sometimes it’s important to speak plainly.

  • http://twitter.com/Teresacottam Teresa Cottam

    In the UK the worry is we’ll throw the baby out with the bathwater. Many of our overly-ambitious govt-funded IT projects really haven’t worked and have been really unpopular. Some have been stunningly good, but of course they often don’t make headline news in the mainstream press. The govt has to save money and is now axing IT projects to finance other things. Of course some have been techno-hell – they’re overbudget, overtime, benefits are debatable and end users not convinced they want/need them (or are even scared of them).

    I am a believer but I spend a lot of my time scratching my head – why on earth did they do that or in that way? A lot of it isn’t joined up thinking, isn’t sufficiently focused on ROI or customers, and frankly the purchasing has often been dire – UK civil servants are not good at buying IT. I do yearn for the day it does work because I think it will facilitate a more interactive, closer relationship with govt, which has become remote and abstracted.

    When you take a look at what UK govt websites cost to run it is mindboggling – £9 per visit for the “worst” performer http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/jul/05/government-websites-costs

    The stats on the UK’s “big IT projects” are likewise pretty scary eg high failure rates (http://www.silicon.com/management/public-sector/2007/05/18/failed-seven-out-of-10-gov-it-projects-39167189/)

    £26 billion+ wasted cash http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/labours-computer-blunders-cost-16326bn-1871967.html

    Many of these projects were even seen to erode our civil liberties because of the political nature or data they sought to capture http://www.computerweekly.com/Articles/2010/05/12/241213/UK-government-to-scrap-16315bn-of-IT-projects.htm

    Unfortunately that means that everyone is now more wary of govt IT full stop, as the projects that have worked are just taken for granted. As is always the way… Learn from our mistakes and hopefully you guys will reap the benefits of the egov vision and avoid some of the nightmare.

    The other thing to remember is that we have a “digital rump” of refuseniks who won’t go online – these are citizens too.. Digital exclusion means we have to run parallel offline infrastructure for many, many years. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2009-11/02/what-to-do-with-the-digital-refuseniks

    Teresa
    http://www.telesperience.com

  • http://twitter.com/esauve Eric Sauve

    Great summary Andrew and agreed on the top presentations – Ellen Miller really did not hold any punches in her presentation thus cutting through the niceties around the discussion.

    Having been involved in Gov 2.0 for a while (long before that was its moniker), my personal view on adoption is that it will come but will be a function of a particular agency’s responsiveness to its external environment. In the military, they have been doing it for a while driven by their urgent need to adapt to a changing enemy. Other agencies which exist in a more stable operating environment will take much more time – often lacking the external impetus for change.

    In terms of Obama’s Open Gov directive, leadership is important but not sufficient…

    Thank you for the article.

  • Christina

    from a poet’s point of view:

    I really appreciate the optimism. tech can make so many bottlenecks go away with transparency. one problem which i’ve seen is bureaucrats like anyone else want to protect their jobs, their point of view. they get insular. “point-of-view” protection isn’t always bad. working for HEW years ago in the budget department for air pollution i noticed that the office workers would protect the programs that they cared about. Congress would cut something and they’d pull money out of squirreled away funds.

    also i think the “chipping away” is a great way to work, but what you raised about the tenacity and longevity of bureaucracy is very real. i’ve seen this again and again: in federal government departments, schools, hospitals–across the board. i think besides the “chippers” we could use some or a number of umbrella organizations to cheer lead flagging spirits, offer methods of not always “biting through”, but developing more flexible approaches, doing in depth analysis of the social and logistical problems, and creating long term goals. And as difficult as this is we’ve got to make it bipartisan. maybe we could even build in a self destruct element for the organization to go away when either a goal is accomplished or if the organization gets too stuck in itself and it’s time for a new form to be created. if fact we should probably build in “renewal” structures into many organizations. it’s going to happen. That’s the way it is. We could plan for it.

  • http://tinyurl.com/DakinAssociates Shaun Dakin

    Great post.

    I worked at Fannie Mae (dare I mention that?) from 2001 – 2004. One of the first things I learned about was the “slow no”. Propose a great idea that saves money or increases revenue? No one would actually say, “no”. But you knew it was coming, just not when.

    “Great idea, let’s study that”.
    “Thanks, we’ll get back to you.”

    I was reminded of that in your quote:

    “A well-established technique for resisting change is to agree wholeheartedly with the need, and to propose careful study, planning, and deliberation. By the time all of this is finished, so is the term in office of the person desiring innovation.”

    Like Tim O, I love technology, not for “how cool” it is but how it can solve actual problems for citizens.

    Until the Gov 2.0 meme can move from the “shiny object syndrome” – cloud computing for example – to telling stories about how technology will improve citizens lives, everyday, it will take a long long time to move to the mainstream.

    Fix a pothole, educate a child, lower the cost of healthcare, let me communicate with my elderly Mother in another state and “check in” on her.

    Solve real world problems. Sooner, rather than later.

    @ShaunDakin

    CEO and Founder of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry – StopPoliticalCalls.org and @EndTheRoboCalls

    Founder of Privacy Camp (@PrivacyCamp)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=686501983 Pam Broviak

    From a local govt perspective I continue to be disappointed to see everyone so ready to blame government workers for bureaucracy. The system is not in place because we are “lazy, or obsessed with hiding their dirty laundry or growing their turf, or making money in the current environment, or in the pocket of someone with deep pockets.” Instead, we are the ones who try to run government while dealing with all this bureaucracy on a daily basis. It is definitely not something we prefer, and it does make everything completely inefficient. And from what I have seen, the greatest bureaucratic layers come from laws passed by politicians in response to special interest groups.

    For example, in Illinois we just had our state elected officials pass a law with no stakeholder input which created a huge bureaucratic process just to dump a load of dirt somewhere. Engineers have to be hired to assess each load and paperwork must be filled out. The end result is that everything we do on construction will take more time and cost a lot more money just to dump a load of dirt. All this to make a special interest group happy and try to get more votes. No one in the industry wants this, and we all know it is a huge waste of time and taxpayer dollars.

    The bottom line is politicians don’t pass laws for govt workers – they pass them for the public to get votes. And then govt workers are held responsible for carrying out those laws. When the dust clears and years go by and it takes 25 years to build a bridge because we have to meet all the requirements in the environmental, historical, cultural, etc, laws, the public forgets or doesn’t realize that this is occurring because they wanted to protect all these assets and hold people accountable. Instead they think we are taking that long because we are lazy, protecting turf, taking money under the table, etc. And all we are doing is our job within the constraints placed upon us by elected officials in response to public demands.

  • http://lewisshepherd.wordpress.com Lewis Shepherd

    Andy – I like that you’ve taken on this topic, this way. It is indeed important, and the Summit was (yet again) an opportunity to share some thinking on “whither reform.” But to your question: I have increasingly become pessimistic, for a reason somewhat parallel to your second reason “why the bureaucracy might win.” That is, I believe most of the extant Gov 2.0 efforts are actually designed to perpetuate large federal bureaucracies. They’ll optimize the work of the agencies as now understood – and not contribute a whit to “change.” Is a more “communicative” or “participatory” Health and Human Services actually going to act any differently? Will its budget be smaller? Staff be smaller? Or will it actually be more assured of its entrenched position in dominating all activity within the healthcare space?

    I guess my concern revolves around what I see as a divergence between the “Jeffersonian” small-self-government model which Tim posits as the central rationale, and the Leviathan larger-and-even-more-capable bureaucratic model which savvy CIOs and CTOs seem intent on constructing. Add to that impedance the unsettled political context around the nation, and you could potentially have a formula for distrust of the technologies involved – whether that’s warranted or not.

    Great post sparking interesting debate – thanks a lot! -lewis

  • http://briandrake.wordpress.com/ Brian Drake

    Andy – Thanks for blogging about this.

    I find myself strongly agreeing with Lewis (http://lewisshepherd.wordpress.com/) and Shaun (http://thinkdodone.typepad.com/dakinassociates/).

    The reason why Web/Enterprise 2.0 solutions work in the private sector is because there is a universal metric; Profit. In order for Gov 2.0 to be successful, there need to be fundamental changes to the way in which government delivers its services, obtains/rewards its talent, and rethinks its relationship with private contractors.

    I am one of the proud few who made the transition from the government contractor world and into the government because I am seeking a tangible way to advance the Gov 2.0 agenda. Pam (http://www.facebook.com/pambroviak) is right that the reason government workers become encumbered with regulatory compliance. It is, however, also unfortunately true that the Federal government rewards its employees for longevity, not performance. A highly successful Federal employee builds an empire upon which a legal compliance framework is in place (i.e., “I have a job because P.L. 123-4 Section A, says every gopher in New Mexico must meet an untimely death.”), where contractor dollars can be dedicated (i.e. There are a lot of gophers and even the Federal government is not large enough to handle the problem.), and where mission creep is not only permitted – it’s critical to survival (i.e. “Even though we killed all the gophers in NM, we now need to move on to NV!”

    A Gov 2.0 solution in this scenario is to make the identification and termination of gophers easier. What it doesn’t do is put forward a viable mechanism to end the program. The only thing that can direct and affect the Federal government is deep and meaningful participation (See http://briandrake.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/in-defense-of-intelligence-transformation/).

  • http://twitter.com/sengseng Amy

    barf. suck-up.

  • http://eedious.blogspot.com friarminor

    The reason why Web/Enterprise 2.0 solutions work in the private sector is because there is a universal metric; Profit. – Brian

    Cynical but just thinking about it, in government, the metric seems to be ‘to remain in perpetuity’.

  • http://www.ddmcd.com Dennis D. McDonald

    It’s important to remember that the same tool can be used to both perpetuate an existing process and to change that process. Using collaboration technologies and social media are like that. Some people use them as additional megaphones or as glorified email. Others — the minority — actually use them as part of serious change processes. The vague term “Government 2.0″ unfortunately covers both of these.

    One area where this is especially true is government acquisitions ( http://www.ddmcd.com/gates.html ) where bureaucratic and regulatory standards are so embedded and complex that only a catastrophe will create significant change. Perhaps the burgeoning Federal deficit and the resulting cutbacks in Government services will actually cause wider adoption of new technology ( http://www.ddmcd.com/cloud.html ).

  • http://twitter.com/MariaChrysafidi Maria Chrysafidi

    Very well thought and “spoken”!!!

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