Gov 2.0 vs. the Beast of Bureaucracy

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.