Regardless of whether you are an elected official, a public servant, consultant or service-provider, I’m sure you regularly cup your head in your hands and wonder “how could they have made so many mistakes?” Government does countless things every ticking second. Most things go right but, inevitably, some things go wrong. People are mistreated and misjudged. Things get lost; people are not informed sufficiently or in time. The wrong people get the wrong service at the wrong time, in the wrong place. Too often, whatever is desired is delivered too slowly. Errors are made. Costs go over estimates. The newspapers (at least for those who still read them) offer a daily dose of mis-deeds every day.
Can the state be smarter? Yes, according to Beth Simone Noveck in her new book, Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing (Harvard University Press). Noveck teaches at New York University, but she’s not been afraid to get her hands dirty. In 2008, working with the United States Patent and Trade Office, she developed a very innovative Internet-based patent review project called “Peer-to-Patent.” She was hired by the Obama White House to lead its “Open Government Initiative” and worked there for a few years. Her previous book was Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger and Citizens More Powerful, a book that reflects on her experience in the Peer-to-Patent initiative.
In Smart Citizens, Smarter State, Beck explores how expertise, which was once the preserve of a few select professions and government officials, has become democratized. The reality, she notes, is that there is far more expertise outside government today than there is within. Industry is vastly more mobilized and the citizenry is better educated than before. Linked by the internet around the clock, social capacity has the potential to revolutionize everything the government touches. The challenge is in getting that expertise to work for the State so as to help it improve its policy making and its services and ensure a governance that is still fair and equitable. But Beck goes further: it’s not a one-way street. She makes the bold claim that smarter governance will actually make citizens better.
Beck’s volume is rich with examples drawn from public services around the world. She draws provocative lessons from instructive case studies and slowly builds an argument for the better use of crowdsourcing methods. She calls for experiments in involving citizens in all sorts of real tasks, making the argument that this can only help the State improve. Beck is optimistic that this can be accomplished, but much of her book is an examination of what the obstacles ahead might be. She devotes a chapter to the inertia in many US government departments who will point to various statutes and use them as pretexts to limit using the broad public for assistance. She notes that politicians are also suspicious and that there may be a series of legal restrictions that actually prevent government from going “outside” to seek the best insights. She points to the Federal Advisory Committee Act as a particular culprit that must be eliminated.
The guiding quest of Canadian Government Executive has always been to draw attention to the people and organizations that work to make the State smarter. In this issue, Rod Windover reports on the CRA’s Accelerated Business Solutions Lab, part of our series on “Innovation Labs”. Craig Szelestowski probes the solutions at hand to correct the “defects” in government services and reports on innovative breakthroughs.
The state can also get smarter by tightening its relationships with its closest service delivery partners. Bryan Adams and Adam Wellstead report on some of their key findings regarding that key component of governance. Clearly, there is more work that needs to be done in creating a rapprochement between the state and the many non-governmental organizations that increasingly deliver services to the public.
Is it naïve to think that technology can bring citizens and the state into a more productive relationship that goes beyond easily manipulated “consultations”? I don’t think so. It just may be the only route to ensuring that government lives up to its promise of delivering policy and programs that meet needs and expectations. It may be central to the future of the state.
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