President Bezos


On the heels of this morning’s news that our federal and state governments have spent $1.7 billion dollars (and counting) to build a few questionable websites, we have this bold claim from Michael Case at the Verge:

If the government is ever going to completely retool itself to provide sensible services to a growing, aging, diversifying American population, it will have to do more than bring in a couple innovators and throw data at the public. At the federal level, these kinds of adjustments will require new laws to change the way money is allocated to executive branch agencies so they can coordinate the purchase and development of a standard set of tools. State and local governments will have to agree on standard tools and data formats as well so that the mayor of Anchorage can collaborate with the governor of Delaware.

Technology is the answer to a lot of American government’s current operational shortcomings. Not only are the tools and systems most public servants use outdated and suboptimal, but the organizations and processes themselves have also calcified around similarly out-of-date thinking. So the real challenge won’t be designing cutting edge software or high tech government facilities — it’s going to be conjuring the will to overcome decades of old thinking. It’s going to be convincing over 90,000 employees to learn new skills, coaxing a bitterly divided Congress to collaborate on something scary, and finding a way to convince a timid and distracted White House to put its name on risky investments that won’t show benefits for many years.

There’s a great line about basic economics, but I can’t remember who said it or find it online. It goes, “Show me a man’s incentives, and I’ll tell you how he behaves.” In other words, incentives are so powerful that a basic understanding of them allows you to extrapolate fine detail about how they work in the real world — assuming you’re able to understand them.

Here we have a smart writer with a failure to understand government’s incentives, and at a very basic level. His complaints are accurate, but they’re fundamental to the functioning of a government bureaucracy, rather than a problem with a fix.

That’s one reason why the Founders wanted to keep the federal government small and in most ways powerless. Nevertheless, we’ll probably spend billions trying to enact reforms like the ones Case proposes, and then wonder where all the money went.