Simplicity In Government?

The idea of simplicity in government is not new. 

Thomas Jefferson was an advocate of “republican simplicity.”  As he wrote in the year before he was elected President:

“I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple…”

Among others in the 18th century, Thomas Paine also was an advocate of simplicity in government.  That was one reason he supported a single house of Congress which would control the national government, rather than the complex system we have. 

Coming closer to our time, the last couple of years have seen a renewal of this idea. “Simpler: The Future of Government” was published in 2013.  The book’s author, Cass Sunstein, was a long time professor at University of Chicago Law School and then ran the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for President Obama.  In that role, he was a continual advocate for simplicity.

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Partly, the complaints of the business community have encouraged the desire for simplicity in government regulations.  More broadly, overly complex government operations have also been tied to higher than necessary taxes – so they affect everyone’s pocketbook.

It almost seems that no one can argue against simplification. 

But Syracuse University’s Professor David Driesen argues in a review of Sunstein’s work, for example, that “complexity bears no fixed relationship to costs or benefits.”  Moreover, he points out that there is often a trade-off between simplicity and other values; or looking at it another way, complexity in government is often a result of compromises that are necessary for a law to be enacted.  

He’s also not the first to notice that some who advocate simplicity, attribute simplicity only to those policies and actions that they support on other grounds.

So perhaps simplicity of laws and regulations is not so simple, after all.

But simplicity has many forms.  Is there a way of thinking about simplicity in government that bypasses underlying ideological motivations?

I think so, but it has less to do with debates about political philosophy and law, and more to do with the concrete interactions between government and people – the citizen’s experience.

For that, there are examples and inspiration from outside the public sector.  Perhaps one of the best is Apple, especially as explained in the book, “Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success”.  In this book,

Ken Segall, one of the company’s former marketing experts, points out the many ways that Apple and Steve Jobs worked to simplify the experience of dealing with Apple’s products and services – despite the ways that this might increase the complexity of the problems facing its designers, engineers and other staff.

Although this approach hasn’t been used much in governments in the US, it is not a completely outlandish idea.  Tim Brown, the CEO of the famous design firm, Ideo, proclaimed in his blog that the “The UK Government Shows How to Design for Simplicity” – at least with respect to its Internet presence and digital public services.  

The implication of Apple’s obsession with simplicity is that it starts out by subordinating everything it does to the user’s needs.  And isn’t that what a democratic government is supposed to do too?

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© 2015 Norman Jacknis

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Some Counter-Conventional News

This will be my last post of 2014, so I figured I’d pull together a collection of some recent news items that you may not yet have come across.  I’m not sure what these all have in common except to remind us that the conventional wisdom we so often hear is also often wrong.  (To read the full story for any of these, just click on the embedded links.)

A suburban world: The emerging world is becoming suburban. Its leaders should welcome that, but avoid the West’s mistakes – Despite all the talk about people moving to cities (meaning downtowns), “[in] the emerging world almost every metropolis is growing in size faster than in population.”  See, for example, this suburb of Buenos Aires.

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America’s New First Screen– “It has finally happened: Mobile has bumped TV as America’s first screen.”

The USPS spends far more on city mail carriers than rural ones – to be precise, “city carriers’ compensation costs averaged 58 cents per delivery point, while rural carriers’ averaged 49 cents”

Jack Ma explains why China’s education system fails to produce innovators – “Ma’s argument is that China’s education system doesn’t give students enough time or encouragement to just mess around, have fun, and experiment.”  (Jack Ma is the founder/CEO of Alibaba and now the richest man in Asia.)

Here’s the First Line of Code Ever Written by a US President – “Barack Obama just became the first U.S. president to write a line of computer code” in Javascript.

Estonian e-residency – “E-residency is a state-issued secure digital identity for non-residents that allows digital authentication and the digital signing of documents.”  Considering how easy it is to do this kind of thing, we’ll start to see more of this kind of thing and it will really mess up traditional understanding of the nation-state and citizenship.

Everything you think you know about the news is probably wrong – “Around the world, people have a pretty good sense of the life expectancy of their country’s inhabitants.  When it comes to most other social statistics, they have no idea.”

Obama Is a Republican – A view in the American Conservative magazine that many conservatives “saw in him a classic conservative temperament: someone who avoided lofty rhetoric, an ambitious agenda, and a Utopian vision that would conflict with human nature, real-world barriers to radical reform, and the American system of government.”

Voters Know Themselves Better Than the Pollsters Do– This fall’s “elections provide further ammunition for the idea that we should pay less attention to polls of voters’ intentions, and more to polls asking them who they think will win.”

How Technology Could Help Fight Income Inequality

Costa Rica is number one – “If you’re looking for a change of scenery and considering moving to a new country, you may want to consider Costa Rica. According to the Happy Planet Index (HPI), it’s the happiest country on Earth.”

42.9 million Americans have unpaid medical bills – “Nearly 20 percent of U.S. consumers have unpaid medical debts, according to a new report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”

The Art of Not Working at Work – “At first, the ability to check email, read ESPN, or browse Zappos while on the job may feel like a luxury. But in time, many crave more meaningful — and more demanding — responsibilities.”

I wish you all happy holidays and a wonderful new year – and fun, fulfillment and more insights 🙂

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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The Experience Economy In The Public Sector?

B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, the authors of a groundbreaking article in the Harvard Business Review in 1998, followed up in 1999 with their influential book – “The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business A Stage”.  (The book was later updated with a 2011 edition.)

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The original article and book were widely credited with establishing the field of customer experience management and the idea that a successful business relationship involves more than just delivering the goods or services promised. 

As the summary of the original article says:

“In this article, co-authors B. Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore … preview the likely characteristics of the experience economy and the kinds of changes it will force companies to make. First there was agriculture, then manufactured goods, and eventually services. Each change represented a step up in economic value – a way for producers to distinguish their products from increasingly undifferentiated competitive offerings. Now, as services are in their turn becoming commoditized, companies are looking for the next higher value in an economic offering. Leading-edge companies are finding that it lies in staging experiences.

“An experience occurs when a company uses services as the stage – and goods as props – for engaging individuals in a way that creates a memorable event. And while experiences have always been at the heart of the entertainment business, any company stages an experience when it engages customers in a personal, memorable way.”

These memorable moments stick with people and cause them to comment favorably to others.  To help them remember, many companies even provide souvenirs – another form of experience.  When business people think of souvenirs, it is not necessarily something elaborate.  For example, what one business would hand out as a simple receipt a smarter, more experience-oriented business would provide as an elaborate document, perhaps even on thicker parchment-like paper.

The books go into great detail and elaborate these ideas beyond the simple summary I’ve provided here.  It’s worth the time to read.

And the kind of thinking presented by Pine and Gilmore has had a big impact in the business world.  Many of the modern heroes of the economy, such as the late Steve Jobs of Apple, were known for the way they built their success on customer experiences.

Yet, the ideas in the Experience Economy have had only a small impact on the public sector and few pubic officials are sensitive to the experience their constituents are having.  This is somewhat surprising for several reasons.

First, as a matter of electoral survival, incumbent office holders want the residents of their community (i.e., the voters) to have favorable memories of the experience of being a citizen.  Indeed, professional campaign consultants have heard stories of public officials who “did everything right” – these politicians did what the public wanted – but were rejected anyway because people were unhappy with the experience of being a citizen in that jurisdiction.

In the broadest sense, this is about making a difference in the lives of citizens – something that drew many officials to public service in the first place.

Second, in a world where people have increasing choices about where they might live or travel to, the experience of being in a city or state will have a big impact on the economy there.  If it’s a positive, memorable experience, more people will want to be there and the economy will grow – as will funding for the government.  If not, bad experiences will lead to worse experiences for those trying to lead a community with declining population and declining revenues.

Although great experiences are not everyday events even in the business world, it is not necessarily that difficult to create these experiences.  Think about the typical interaction between a citizen and the government.  What would it take to turn that into a positive, memorable experience?  Not a lot of money; just an increased sensitivity to the experience from the citizen’s side. 

And public officials might also find that their staff, rather than resisting the changing to make the workplace more fun and memorable, would become more motivated.

I’d like to continue this conversation by elaborating on how the ideas of the Experience Economy can be applied in the public sector.  Let me know if you want to see this and, of course, please share any examples you have of memorable public sector experiences.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Three Books And A Webinar

I’ve been asked about books I’ve written part of or have a relationship to.  Since we’re in the relative quiet time of summer, I’m using this post to respond.

First, before this year, I wrote a chapter on “A New Kind Of Public Square For Urban America: How Sub-National Government Will Be Impacted In A Hybrid Physical-Virtual World Of Ubiquitous Communications”.  It appears in Transforming American Governance: Rebooting the Public Square (Transformational Trends in Governance and Democracy) .

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More recently published, in March 2014, was the compilation of essays, titled Smart Cities for a Bright Sustainable Future – A Global Perspective .  The chapter I wrote focuses on “Beyond Smarter City Infrastructure – The New Urban Experience”.

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As Senior Fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum, I’m also pleased to see the three co-founders of ICF write a new book in April 2014, titled Brain Gain: How innovative cities create job growth in an age of disruption .  You can learn more about the book and the ideas in it at www.BrainGainBook.com .

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Obviously, these books have a focus on big urban centers.  But they have implications for smaller communities as well.  For a flavor of that, you might want to register for Public Sector Digest’s webinar on “Small Communities, Intelligent Communities”.  It will be held today, July 23, 2014 from 1:00 PM EDT to 2:00 PM EDT.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Keeping Citizen Engagement Engaging

Starting at the national level with the Obama Administration’s open government initiative in 2009, there have been many attempts at crowdsourcing in various governments and public agencies.  

From his campaign, President Obama realized that we can now scale up collaboration and participation – and create a 21st century version of the old New England Town Meetings that, while not perfect, did a pretty good job of engaging residents.

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Unfortunately many of these efforts have been disappointing in various ways:

  • Fewer people participated than expected.
  • The forum was “hijacked by fringe groups” – this was one criticism of the early Obama open government efforts because decriminalizing Marijuana turned out to be one of the more popular proposals.  (But see my earlier post “Do Good Ideas Bubble Up From The Crowd?”)
  • The site went stale, with early excitement evaporating and participation going to zero.  As an example, see the Texas Red Tape Challenge.
  • Citizens were encouraged to participate and did so, only to find that their ideas were disregarded by public officials, which only increased the frustration among both citizen and officials.

Nevertheless, when they succeed, citizen engagements can satisfy several public purposes.  They are a great way to get help and new ideas, test proposals, understand priorities of voters and educate citizens about the complexities and realities of governing.  Moreover, in response to the general decline in respect for major public, nonprofit and private institutions, crowdsourcing is a way of earning back respect and trust – and convincing a skeptical public that public officials really care.  All of these benefits make it easier for public officials to govern better.

And the successes have provided important lessons.  Most important, like lots of other things, crowdsourcing requires some thought before implementation.  

You won’t get the best results if you take a “just build it and they will come” approach.  At the other extreme, you can bury any government initiative in “analysis paralysis”.   A reasonable balance is to plan how public officials will:

  • Set realistic expectations within their own organization as well as with the public;
  • Target the appropriate audience for the discussion;
  • Set up the topic/question in a clear, unbiased way;
  • Start the conversation with citizens;
  • Figure out how to manage the conversation and keep citizens engaged; and last but not least,  
  • End the engagement in a way that provides a positive experience for citizens and the government.

When these engagements actually engage citizens, they help redefine the relationship between public officials and the people they serve.  And they can provide a core of solid support from the public that any public official would desire – the kind of support that will carry officials through those bad times when they also make mistakes.

More later.

[photo credit: http://community.weber.edu/WeberReads/meeting_21922_md.gif]

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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The Internet versus The Nation-State?

I’ve been reading two books that haven’t usually been mentioned together.  The authors – one pair from and heavily influenced by the tech industry – and the other from the foreign policy establishment end up taking positions that are somewhat opposite to where they would be expected.

Together the two books lay out a debate as to whether the Internet will have only a surface effect on government or be part of a fundamental change.

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, and Jared Cohen, former member of the US Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff wrote “The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives”.

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Despite its futuristic vision in parts, the book’s concept of government seems mostly to be stuck in the present, perhaps even the past.  The authors’ view is that the Internet is “just a tool” that will be used by the nation-state and citizens to interact in much the way they have done so in the past couple hundred years – since the idea of a nation-state began to form.  Their chapter on revolutions even has the dynamics of protest and revolution following old rules, with the Internet playing a supporting role.

But new tools are not always merely new means to old ends.  They change things in fundamental ways.  Consider the impact of tool making and tools on the evolution of the human species.  Or, remember the succinct statement about television a couple decades ago by Marshall McLuhan: “the medium is the message.”

And then there’s Moisés Naim, former Foreign Policy editor and Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who wrote “The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be”.

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He writes:

“We know that power is shifting from brawn to brains, from north to south and west to east, from old corporate behemoths to agile start-ups, from entrenched dictators to people in town squares and cyberspace.  But to say that … is not enough.  Power is undergoing a far more fundamental mutation … Even as rival states, companies, political parties, social movements, and institutions or individual leaders fight for power as they have done throughout the ages, power itself – what they are fighting so desperately to get and keep – is slipping away.

“Power is decaying.

“To put it simply, power no longer buys as much as it did in the past. In the twenty-first century, power is easier to get, harder to use – and easier to lose…

“The decay of power is changing the world.”

Naim’s book makes a persuasive case that the Internet, along with other major factors, is fundamentally reducing the power of the nation-state and other centuries-old institutions.  The tools are diminishing and modifying the nation-states, not merely being added to their arsenal.

©2014 Norman Jacknis

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Crowdsourcing For Legislators?

[This blog is a slightly early contribution to the dialog of the annual Personal Democracy Forum to be held tomorrow, June 5, 2014, in New York City.  See http://personaldemocracy.com/conferences/nyc/2014 .]

In a previous post, “Is The Voice A Model For Crowdsourcing?”, I noted that crowdsourcing can be a modern manifestation of the civic involvement that is the foundation of successful democracies – by providing public officials a good sense of the priorities of citizens, in addition to giving them new ideas.

When he took office in 2009, President Obama made crowdsourcing a key element of his open government initiative, using the IdeaScale platform.  So did other elected officials in national and sub-national governments around the world. 

In some respects, it is surprising that public officials with executive responsibilities have taken to crowdsourcing more than those in legislative positions.  Most legislative bodies in democracies have encouraged petitions and testimony from the public as they consider new laws.  The National Conference of State Legislatures of the USA prominently features the importance of citizen engagement, mostly focused on ways this has happened for decades.

So, in the Internet age, crowdsourcing would seem to be a natural extension of that traditional pattern.  But that’s happening slowly.

I would expect this to pick up as legislators realize it is in their professional interest to better engage with their constituents.  That engagement helps to even the playing field in the frequent contests between legislators and public executives – a situation where most voters have much less awareness of their legislators than of the executives and so can provide less support for the legislative side.

There are two interested examples of crowdsourcing in the legislative arena.

Last year, the Ministry of Environment in Finland used crowdsourcing to draft a new law on off-road traffic, a subject with conflicting public priorities so it was good to encourage wider involvement in the debate than would normally occur.

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A GovLab report, at the end of last year, noted these ways in which this was a positive experiment:

  • Almost all the comments were constructive, with a very small percentage weeded out.
  • Participants as a group were realistic about their expectations and the fact that their input would need to be refined.
  • The participants learned from each other which helped to elevate the level of the debate and presumably made it easier for the government to arrive at a reasonable compromise.
  • The “crowd preferred commonsensical and nuanced ideas, while rejecting vague and extreme ones”

Clearly the experience of the Finnish would indicate that some of the fears public officials have had about crowdsourcing haven’t come about.  The public is trying to participate as reasonable adults in a governmental process; they’re not attacking officials with their “virtual pitchforks”.

Earlier this year, in what he said was a first for the USA, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Los Angeles did the same for a proposed new probate law.  The number of people who took advantage of the opportunity was relatively small, not surprising considering that probate law is perhaps not the most exciting topic for most people.  Nevertheless, he plans to shepherd the ideas from the crowd through the legislative process as part of a larger effort to modernize the way that citizens interact with government.

As crowdsourcing in legislation – both big and small – continues to develop a good track record, I would expect to see many more legislators and legislative bodies begin to use the modern tools for gathering ideas and priorities from the public.

©2014 Norman Jacknis

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Is The Voice A Model For Crowdsourcing?

Crowdsourcing — using the wisdom of the crowd on the Internet — has been especially intriguing to public officials. It gives them access to new ideas as well as an assessment of the popularity of those ideas. 

Of course, not all of these crowdsourcing projects have worked so well. 

In many cases, these efforts have failed to meet the criteria that James Surowiecki identified in his book, “The Wisdom of the Crowds”.  Among other factors, he pointed out that the crowd’s assessment is most useful when they have a great variety of viewpoints based on diverse experience and their judgments are independent of each other.  It has been too often the case in public sector crowdsourcing that these criteria are not satisfied.

There has often been a sense by the public that their suggestions get lost and are no one pays attention to them, which leads to low participation.  For their side, the professional staff ask “where do we come in?”  Is there no role for expertise anymore?

The very popular and Emmy-award winning reality TV series, “The Voice”, may provide a model.  The show is intended to identify new singing talent. 

The Voice starts with open auditions in many cities, much like crowdsourcing sites are open to anyone to propose an idea.  Then in the winnowing process, the professionals enter the picture.

At the beginning of the televised season, professional and well-known singers select candidates for their team.  So they act as a filter.  This, in a sense, parallels the selection of the public’s ideas that professional staff in government decide they will actually consider.

Then the professional singers do something else – they provide mentoring, advice and training to the candidates on their team.  So far as I know, I haven’t seen anything like this in the government or corporate use of crowdsourcing, but it is something they should be doing in order to refine and improve on ideas that arise from the public.

After a few additional trials of their talent, the professional singers select a final set candidates.  At that point, the public re-enters the picture.  (And the Voice does seem to follow the characteristics of successful crowdsourcing that Surowiecki found.)  

Over the rest of the series, it is the votes of the public which determine ultimately who walks away with the number one position and the prized recording contract. In a twist on the usual way people vote, The Voice allows multiple voting – a measure of intensity of support, which also parallels many political situations where intensity is as important as the raw numbers.

While the producers of the show likely do this to enhance their ratings and the public’s involvement with the show, there is a lesson here as well for public officials.  While these officials may sometimes dismiss the public’s ideas as misguided, that easy dismissal or failure to follow up on public suggestions only serves to increase the cynicism of voters about the government.

Instead, perhaps like The Voice, after initial rounds of public suggestions, the experts in government could work with the most best ideas to hone them and then present those back to the public to identify which they like the most.  This provides the experts a meaningful role in the process and it also brings in the public in what is the ultimate step in a democratic decision process – the priorities of the citizens.

This final step would certainly lessen the cynicism that has accompanied government crowdsourcing efforts in the past and increase participation in those efforts, which would only help to make them even better.

©2014 Norman Jacknis

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National Association of Counties Innovation Summit

As the first Senior Fellow of the National Association of Counties (NACo), I had the privilege to be part of their recently concluded five-day Legislative Conference in Washington, DC.

It was also an opportunity for me to introduce to the counties the Rural Imperative of the Intelligent Community Forum.  Since I blogged about the need for a new connected countryside a couple of weeks ago, ICF announced my new role, which you can read about at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/02/prweb11614027.htm.   There’s also a brief video that I did at http://youtu.be/d0fD6rguvwQ.

For three days, there was a special focus on technology and more interesting presentations than I can summarize here.  Sometime next week, you will be able to see video of Saturday’s Innovation and Technology Summit at NACo.org.

Here are some of my observations:

  • The VP of the Maui Economic Development described their strategy.  I cheered when she said that, notwithstanding the traditional incentives and approaches of economic development, the most important thing is to “grow your own”.  She went on to describe how they are focused on workforce development and all kinds of creative, only-in-Hawaii learning opportunities.  But much of that targeted children.  In an economy where adults need to keep refreshing their skills and knowledge until well past what you used to be retirement age, adults also need access to learning opportunities.
  • The Directors of the Health and Human Services Departments of both Montgomery County, Maryland and San Diego County, California both focused on outcomes.  This too is an important step forward beyond the usual output measures that have dominated performance data in government.  Montgomery County also puts as much emphasis on social return on investment as on pure financial return on investment.
  • One other part of the San Diego presentation caught my attention: that counties need to lead the “higher levels” of government.  In the face of Federal government dysfunction for the last several years, most local and state governments have taken the approach of go ahead without waiting for the Feds to take action.  So we’ve seen much more innovation at the sub-national level than at the national level.  Now it seems that some sub-national governments are actively upending the pyramid of power and hoping to guide the Federal government to a more innovative posture.
  • There was a keynote speech by a White House staffer on open data and much discussion of open data on various panels.  Rich Leadbeater of ESRI rightly pointed out that “open data is not an end in itself.  It’s what you do with it.”  This is a refreshing attitude since too many governments seem to spend a lot of time congratulating themselves for making the data available on the Internet and leaving things at that. 
  • Some governments have encouraged private companies to develop apps with this data.  Curiously, those governments have not usually embedded the apps into their own systems so these companies are left on their own to get citizens to know about them.  Worse, too many government think that asking private companies to create these apps absolves them of their own responsibility.  The reality is that not all the applications that are needed or can be developed with open data will generate the revenue a private company seeks, but those apps are still useful for the public too have.  The only way they will be created is if the government does the development itself or pays for the app to be developed.  Considering that the costs of software development have gone down considerably over the past decade, this is not something that can easily be dismissed as out of budget.

In my end-of-day review and commentary on the sessions, I offered my reaction to the data being put out on the web – “TMI, TLK”.  Too much information, too little knowledge.  Governments should recognize that they and their constituents have to start working together to make sense of all that data and use it to make improvements in policies and programs. 

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Do Good Ideas Bubble Up From The Crowd?

Almost five years ago, President Obama launched an open government website that asked for average citizens to suggest the most pressing public policy issues and then vote on the relative importance of those issues.  In the words of IdeaScale, the company that has developed the software platform for these kinds of crowdsourcing activities, these efforts at Internet-based collaboration are intended to bubble up the best ideas.

So it was with some embarrassment on the part of the White House that the subject of the legalization of marijuana came out as one of the top issues in 2009.  The opponents of the President took him to task about letting a tiny fringe minority dominate his Open Government efforts.  As reported in an article “Clay Shirky: online crowds aren’t always wise”, this resulted even in one of the leading scholars and advocates of crowdsourcing discussing checks and balances on full national scale popular engagement on public policy.

Various explanations were given and there was lots of hand-wringing by the digerati and open government advocates, including this one in Wired and this one on the Personal Democracy Forum blog.  The White House ultimately responded only to those important issues it thought politically acceptable to respond to – not including marijuana.

Then all this passed into arcane history.  But I was reminded of this history when Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana in the elections last year, various governors announced their reduction in enforcement of anti-marijuana laws or even effective decriminalization and, indeed, even the Obama Administration has softened its stance.

Whatever you might think of these decisions as matters of public policy, it seems that the rush to negative judgment about the marijuana issue “bubbling up” in 2009 was perhaps inappropriate.  It may well be that these crowdsourcing efforts, while not perfect and potentially manipulated, can act as a kind of leading indicator of public opinion.  Clearly the supporters were a bit more than a tiny, fringe minority. 

For now, we see that public opinion on marijuana laws is the opposite of what the media commentators would have had us believe in 2009.  For example, there have been two stories this past year about the survey work of the respected and non-partisan Pew Research folks:

In 2009, this was apparently still not a majority but on its way to becoming one.  That is perhaps one reason that the organizations who use crowdsourcing also have found it to be a valuable means of developing innovative ideas and solutions – which are not yet, but will be, conventional wisdom in a few years.

So we do indeed need to get smarter about open government efforts, which is not the same thing as saying they don’t work.  As leaders represent ever larger constituencies and thus have more difficulty understanding what’s on the minds of those constituents, crowdsourcing can be a useful instrument. 

It is also something that voters will very much appreciate as a promising countervailing tendency to the disengagement from civic affairs that many have felt in recent years. 

On top of that, leaders may also realize how much wisdom there is “out there” and look smart for adopting it early.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Isn’t There A Better Way To Build Government Software?

The awful performance of healthcare.gov has been a staple of the news as well as satire.  This cartoon in the New Yorker this week sums of the frustration of users – http://www.newyorker.com/humor/issuecartoons/2013/11/04/cartoons_20131028#slide=4

I normally don’t like to comment on hot news stories, but this one offers just too much of a teachable moment, especially for public officials who are not technologists, yet who will suffer public criticism when things go bad.

It’s worth noting that this is not the only case of Federal IT system problems.  Before healthcare.gov, the great cost and the long delays of the FBI case management system were in the news.  And, not to be outdone, New York City had a major scandal with its timekeeping system, both for the huge cost (close to $750 million) and the fact that there was a significant amount of that money diverted into the personal pockets of the project staff.

Indeed, costly and disastrous software projects are not just found in the public sector.  It only seems so because the public sector problems are more visible thanks to taxpayer funding, whereas the private sector can keep its mistakes better hidden.

In part, this review of bad projects reminds me of an old line in IT project management.  “Of the three goals of any the project – being within budget, on time, and of good quality – you’re usually only going to get two, but not all three.”  But, for the Affordable Care Act, is none of the three some kind of trifecta?

Part of the problem is that these projects cost way too much money.  That’s often because of rules intended to ensure everything is above board and serves the taxpayers’ interest, but which have the reverse effect.  And so ultimately, the purpose of the procurement rules is, as a well-intentioned government attorney once told me, to follow the rules – not necessarily to get maximum value for the taxpayers.  The big companies that dominate Federal technology projects have learned to master these rules and not necessarily do the best job.  Their reputations are also victims of this focus on process, rather than outcomes.

Another reason for the bloating of these projects is simple ego.  Some top executives have the belief that big important projects should have big budgets. 

Unfortunately, this attitude fails to distinguish the cost of writing the software from deploying it.  The cost of software development does not increase much if the number of users is 100 or 100,000. 

Obviously, the cost of deploying that software will increase in a linear fashion the more people who use it because the deployment may require more servers, more complex database arrangements, etc.

But spending hundreds of millions just to develop the software is usually unjustified.

So what can be done by executives who have to deliver new systems to the public, but feel they are enveloped in a fog of technical jargon so don’t question things until it’s too late.

Consider these alternative ways of handling software projects, none of which is really new, but seem to be not well known to non-technologists in both government and elsewhere:

  • Adopt the agile approach – this means having frequent deliverables and thus taking advantage of learning by users and developers.  It stands in contrast to the traditional practice of big requirements documents and all at once delivery of mammoth amounts of code.
  • Frequent testing, which is also a part of the agile approach.  It’s so important that some people build the test before the software.  After all, proof of the pudding is in the eating and it’s useful to know you’re off course earlier rather than later.
  • Parameterize.  This is something you don’t hear too much about, but it’s something I’ll mention here because some of the healthcare.gov vendors blamed their problems on changes in Federal decision making about whether users need to register first.  I would always tell my development staff this simple rule – if the debate about whether some requirement should be X or Y will take longer to resolve than it takes to program it both ways, then program it both ways by creating a parameter that will switch the system one way or the other.  Don’t let these debates hold up progress of software development.  (By the way, if the debate is that hot, there is good reason to expect the decision to change in the future, which will cost more money in future programming.  So parameterize and let the decision makers argue and change their minds as much as they want.)
  • Gradual scaling – don’t roll out a big new piece of software to the whole world at once.  (Do we really need to say this?)  If the scale of deployment is expected to be a possible problem, why not minimize the problem by taking it in several steps and, again, learning what needs to be improved.  Even experienced Broadway veterans try out the show on the road first.
  • Simplify deployments by using a scalable infrastructure.  There’s much discussion about “the cloud”, which is really just a good marketing term for the vast scale of computing resources available over the Internet.  Use it instead of trying to reinvent this vast scale, which is impossible for any organization, no matter big.  Many Internet businesses you’ve dealt with use these resources to handle peak demand or initial rollouts. 

I could go on, but these guidelines are normally enough to keep your next big systems project out of the headlines.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis

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Does Your Website Talk To People The Way They Think?

(This blog post is a broadening of the recent post on gamification.)

Almost all governments have some kind of website.  Aside from when these sites just don’t work because of bad links or insufficient computer resources to meet demand, they mostly feel like an electronic version of old style government whose employees were often accused of treating other people as “just a number”. These websites talk at people in a kind of monotone, not having a conversation or interaction.

Yet, most of us realize that people have different interests, personalities, cognitive styles and ways of interacting with others.  Thus, to be most effective,  a website should change to reflect who is interacting with it.  

Unfortunately, the only variability that exists in most websites – public or private sector – is usually based on purchasing patterns, such as the different web pages and pricing that appear on Amazon’s website, depending upon your past consumer behavior or perhaps by providing languages other than English.

Glen Urban, who is a marketing professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, calls this the “empathetic Web”.  (See the article, “Morph the Web To Build Empathy, Trust and Sales” by him and his colleagues at http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/morph-the-web-to-build-empathy-trust-and-sales/)

As their summary states:

We’ve long been able to personalize what information the Internet tells us — but now comes “Web site morphing,” and an Internet that personalizes how we like to be told. For companies, it means that communicating — and selling — will never be the same.

The authors distinguish between people on the basis of two pairs of cognitive preferences (visual vs. verbal and analytic vs. holistic).  At the very least, a website should reflect these cognitive differences.  

But it is also worth thinking about other differences. For example, many people prefer a conversational style to the completion of a long form.  The widespread use of smart phones to access the Internet has increased the need to have a more conversational style on the web since the screen is too small to do otherwise.  (That’s why games are a useful model to consider.)  

As the authors note, this is not just a matter of making a website more convenient, but also is essential in building trust, which helps a private company increase sales – and is an absolute requirement for any public official.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis

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Visual Images And Text

Summer is always a good time to catch up on some off-the-usual-track reading.  For me, that means reading a couple of books that look beyond the superficial surface of the Internet and related digital media to the deeper ways that these phenomena have affected people and moved us all to a post-industrial way of thinking and acting.

The books both demonstrate and elaborate on the ways that visual images, rather than text, are the ascendant medium of human communications in this Internet age.

The best of these books is Stephen Apkon’s “The Age Of The Image: Redefining Literacy In A World Of Screens” (2013).  Apkon is the founder and head of the Jacob Burns Film Center, just north of New York City.  The film center has a wide variety of programs, including education of children in visual literacy.  

While just 263 pages, the book describes the history, the language, the business, the techniques and the social and educational impact of visual media.  Apkon’s overall theme is that the dominance of visual media in this century means that all of us (not just children or digital natives) need to become visually literate.

As he states in his introduction:

“The power of visual media has been with us from the beginning of our species … With today’s visual technology, our work lives will be changed forever, and soon it will be as unfathomable not to know how to make a video as it is not to know how to send an e-mail.  The vocabulary of Hollywood is becoming the vocabulary of Main Street.  We must embrace these powerful tools …
“After each revolution, political or cultural, we can look back and see the elements that came together to make it possible and even inevitable.  Those who understand and prepare for these revolutions thrive, and those who don’t are left behind.  We are at one of those moments with regard to the ways in which we participate in society, democracy and the global economy, and visual images and story are at the heart of this historic change.”

A few weeks ago, I was involved in a radio interview with the author that is available on iTunes and also at   

http://wowididntknowthat.com/2013/08/08/the-new-literacy-special-guest-steve-apkon-author-director-jacob-burns-film-center/

A somewhat related book is “The Art of Immersion: How The Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, And The Way We Tell Stories” (2011) by Frank Rose, contributing editor at WIRED Magazine.  The focus of this book is much more on millennials and on the business impact.

Together these books are thought provoking and provide a richly detailed image of the world we now live in.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis

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Citizenville?

I’ve written a couple of times about Carl Skelton’s Betaville software for citizen engagement in urban planning and design, so my eye caught the title of a book that came out a few months ago – “Citizenville: How To Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government” by current California Lt. Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.  (Alas, Citizenville is a name based on the popular game, FarmVille, not Betaville.)

When the book came out, there was a little bit of publicity and reviews in a few newspapers.  Perhaps the largest audience Newsom had was an interview on the Colbert Report, which unfortunately was fairly cynical in tone.  Many people, even those who are interested in better government, haven’t read it.

Let’s first get the criticisms out of the way.  Some critics have dismissed Newsom as a lightweight and clearly he does not write in an academic style.  It’s more journalistic, even breezy.  (Many people might consider that a plus.).

The tone in places is somewhat clichéd and sometimes annoying to those of us who are much deeper into the role of the Internet in government.  For example, the implication that the private sector is almost always better than the public sector is too broad a view to be worth much as a guiding principle.

Some of it is too much about him.  And not all of it is correct or well thought through.  But then that would also be true of authors with more prestigious academic credentials.

Ok, now to the more important positive side.  The book is a reasonably good compendium of the various ways that the Internet is being used in the public sector.  It should be read. 

For me, the most significant thing about the book is that an incumbent, leading politician wrote it.  In a way, that’s also why the book is useful to other public leaders.  Newsom shares his experiences – both good and bad – and outlines at least some of the minefield facing other elected officials who wish to use digital technologies in public service.

In addition to writing a book that can help to educate public leaders, Newsom, along with Code for America, has created the Citizenville Challenge (http://citizenville.com/challenge/) that has enlisted cities such as Philadelphia and Austin.  

Over the last several years, I’ve seen more elected officials who understand the role of technology in better citizen engagement and better public sector outcomes.  My own experience has led me to realize that technologists, in and out of government, can really only succeed when the top elected official leads the way.  Ultimately, that’s why this book is important.

In a recent review, Pete Peterson summarizes this key to success:

Of course, technology can facilitate these opportunities — but not without public-sector officials who see governments as more than “service providers” and citizens who regard themselves as more than “customers.”

[Note: If you want to get a quick idea of what he’s been saying, take a look at this video from the Commonwealth Club of California.  http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/311166-1 ]

© 2013 Norman Jacknis

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Citizens Participating In Budgeting?

This week, the New York State Technology Leadership Academy will take place in Albany, New York.  As I posted two weeks ago, I’ll be speaking about deep citizen engagement – the ways that government leaders can get the benefit of citizen co-creation and co-delivery of public services.

Note: the new website for you to contribute to and assess ideas is at https://claritypresales-13df0e80fac.secure.force.com/ca_idea__ideahome .

A timely article by Governing magazine appeared Monday – Tax Day, appropriately enough – about a “Study: Citizen Budgeting Related To Better Outcomes”.  (http://www.governing.com/blogs/view/gov-study-citizen-budgeting-related-to-better-performance.html)

The study was published in The American Review of Public Administration and focused on the relationship between the degree of citizen participation in highway budgeting and outcomes, such as road fatalities and road surface quality.   The researchers found that the greater the citizen participation, the more positive the outcomes.  This effect was strengthened the earlier the citizens had a chance to participate.

While there have been increasing reports about participatory budgeting, this is the first study that shows that citizen participation is not merely a democratic ideal, but is also a way to get better government.

Go to http://arp.sagepub.com/content/43/3/331 , if you want to read the original article, “Citizen Input in the Budget Process: When Does It Matter Most?” by Hai (David) Guo and Milena I. Neshkova, The American Review of Public Administration, May 2013; vol. 43, 3: pp. 331-346. 

Some other reports about citizen participation in budgeting can be found here:

© 2013 Norman Jacknis

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Government-to-Government Services?

There was an interesting article in the New York Times, “Police Surveillance May Earn Money for City” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/04/nyregion/new-york-citys-police-surveillance-technology-could-bring-in-money.html).

Because it focused on law enforcement, much of the article dealt with privacy and other issues raised by police use of technology.  These issues are indeed challenging, but not that new.

A newer part of the story is that this is a good example of something I’ve been expecting to see for a couple of years: government to government software-as-a-service.   

Here are some relevant excerpts from the story:

The policing system is making New York safer and it will also make money for the city, which is marketing it to other jurisdictions. 

Buyers would pay to access the software (at least several million dollars and more depending on the size of the jurisdiction and whether specifications have to be customized). New York City will receive 30 percent of the gross revenues from the sale of the system and access to any innovations developed for new customers. The revenue will be directed to counterterrorism and crime prevention programs. 

This government-to-government service allows less technologically skilled governments to get sophisticated services they could create for themselves.   It also enables the most technologically advanced governments to spread out their development costs over a larger base and to save some money for their taxpayers.  A win-win as the old expression goes.

Even beyond law enforcement – or maybe I should say, especially outside of law enforcement – the logic of this situation is likely to lead to an expansion of these government-to-government technology services.  More examples in future posts.  Please let me know if you have any examples.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis

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New York State Technology Leadership Academy

In two weeks, the New York State Technology Leadership Academy will take place in Albany, New York.  This event brings together hundreds of the technology executives who try to make technology serve, ever better, the needs of the people of New York.

I’m on a panel Thursday, April 18, talking about Deep Engagement with the citizens of New York, enabling them to co-create public policy and deliver public services.  

As befitting the topic of the panel, there is now an opportunity to direct the conversation.  You can share your ideas or participate in the live conversation on April 18 at 11 AM Eastern Time.  Go to http://bit.ly/11LSR5U 

© 2013 Norman Jacknis

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How Can Resistance To Innovation Be Overcome?

To those of you who are not the elected chief executive of your jurisdiction or who are not a senior executive in government, it may come as a surprise that there are public sector leaders who want to innovate.  Particularly during this period of mounting problems and what seems to be a fast changing world, innovation strikes many public officials as the order of the day.

But like their counterparts in well-established private sector organizations, they face a high hurdle in overcoming resistance to innovations and the change that is a necessary part of innovation.

Its often said that people fear change which is why its so hard to get them to accept innovation.  But the Nobel Prize winning work of Princeton Professor Daniel Kahneman makes it clear that the situation is more complicated than that and there is hope for those who would innovate.

In his Prospect Theory, Kahneman points out that there is no general aversion to change or even merely to risk.  Indeed people might make a more risky choice when all options are bad.

But there is an aversion to losses, which people often exaggerate beyond reality.  The sense of loss is greater if what might be lost has been owned or used for a long time (aka entitlements).  Regret and other emotions can also enhance this sense of loss.

Also, in situations where all outcomes are bad, people may become more risk-seeking. 

Putting it all together (from http://www.econ.pitt.edu/papers/Lise_PTChoicePrice.pdf ):

when faced with a risky prospect people will be:
(1) risk-seeking over low-probability gains,
(2) risk-averse over high-probability gains,
(3) risk-averse over low-probability losses, and
(4) risk-seeking over high-probability losses. 

Considering this background, what can you do if you want to innovate in government?  Here are some thoughts on how to overcome the resistance to change.

  • Reduce people’s estimate of their potential loss.  For example, the new highway won’t be paid for by a 25% toll increase, but by an extra dime each time you use it.
  • Increase the perceived value of the change and/or the perceived likelihood of success positive vivid images help to overcome lower probability estimates of the chances of success; negative vivid images help to magnify the probability of loss.
  • Help people redefine the perception of loss. (Shift their frame of reference, which determines their expected starting point.)
  • Ensure that loss is perceived as a fair outcome (and not meanness), which may require you to find a way to allocate real (not potential) benefits widely.  This was one of the reasons New Deal programs, like Social Security, were applied equally to all seniors.
  • Reduce the overall size of the risks – which means it is best to introduce small innovations, piled on each other. (Note: behavioral scientists have also observed the irrational fear of loss versus the possibility of benefit is reduced when a person has had experience with the trade-off.  A series of small innovations will help the public gain that experience.) 

Since any innovation is an experiment, theres no guarantee of success.  Some will fail, but if competent people are implementing the innovations, you’ll succeed sufficiently more often than you fail so that the overall impact on the public is positive.

  • Work to convince people that their certainty of loss is only a possibility.  People react differently to being told something is a sure thing, than a 90% probability.
  • Since risk taking is no longer avoided among bad choices, show that the obvious loss is less than a bigger possible loss. 

(Of course, a long-term decline of nations/states/cities is usually accompanied by a shredding of the social fabric and a dysfunctional civic culture.  Under such circumstances, a public official may find it difficult to exercise any leadership, never mind try to persuade people to adopt innovative solutions.)

Fortunately, the availability of the Internet and the general reduction over the last decade or so in the cost of software development makes it easier to do small experiments (think apps).

The body of work that Kahneman presents in his best selling book “Thinking, Fast And Slow” is more nuanced than presented here and the book is itself only a summary of years of research by many behavioral scientists.  But this summary should be enough to start. 

Of course the application of this research to the public sector is only beginning.  So help us figure this out and please provide everyone with good examples.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis

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When Will Citizens Be Able To Track Requests To The Government?

A little prelude that may seem obvious, except for the fact that it is widely ignored … 

The people that public officials call citizens or voters or residents are not single-minded civic machines.  Most of the time they are consumers and workers outside of the public sector and so what happens outside of the public sector affects the expectations of the public sector on the part of those same citizens, etc.  

So one of the more frequent parts of a consumer’s life these days is being able to track things.  Here are just a few of the many diverse examples, almost all of which have been around for at least a couple of years:

  • You can track your pizza order from Dominos from the oven to your front door.
  • You can track shipments, at all stages, through FedEx or UPS.
  • You can track the path of a taxi or “black car” that you ordered via Uber.
  • You can track airline flights so you know when to leave for the airport to pick up a relative.

However, in the public sector, this kind of tracking has been rare.  In addition to tracking mass transit in some big cities (perhaps imitating the airline services), there are few examples I could find, such as:

But clearly there are many more situations where people want to track their interaction with the government and cannot.

Why not enable citizens to track their government transactions in mid-stream?  While suggestions of this kind are often proposed to increase transparency of government, the tracking actually serves a much simpler goal – to reduce frustration on the part of the citizen.  If people can see where their request or application is, they will have a lower sense of frustration and a greater sense of control.

If the citizens could also get an estimate of how long it usually takes to go through each step of an approval process, all the better.  

When the Internet began getting much attention more than ten years ago, many governments decided to put applications on line, at least in the form of PDF documents that people could print and then fill out.  Eventually, people could apply online.  New York State government, for example, had a big project that was intended to put every citizen transaction on the Web.

Well, we’re past the point where citizens accept that as the best that can be done.  Now is the time to initiate a “big project” to enable citizens to track the status of each of those transactions.

Of course, the ultimate goal, in so far as possible, is to complete those transactions instantaneously online, like the fishing license app that Michigan makes available.  Then the tracking problem disappears, but that’s a subject for a future blog post.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis

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Does The President Need A 5th Column?

President Obama is now in his second term and he seems to realize that his ability to get things done through legislation is limited.  So he is very much dependent on his executive powers, including executive orders which can get him partly down the road he wants to go.

As chief executive, he also has at his disposal the formidable executive branch of the Federal government.  Every day, millions of Federal employees make decisions affecting the lives of tens of millions of other Americans in countless ways.  However, to an outside observer, the President has not adequately mobilized these employees to help him achieve his goals.  

Partly this is due to the fact that, like many other Presidents, Governors, Mayors and other public sector chief executives, he has focused on the formal organizational structure of the bureaucracy.  But, besides the President’s wishes, Federal employees face pressures from Congress, their own career bosses, the personal agendas of Cabinet secretaries and other political appointees.

This is why in his classic book, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt starts with the story of President Truman speaking about what his successor, President Eisenhower, would face:

He’ll sit here and he’ll say, “Do this! Do that!” And nothing will happen. Poor Ike.  It wont be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating. 

Many a chief executive in the public sector has heard “yes” many times, only to find out six months later that nothing happened to actually implement that supposed affirmation by staff.

In the election of 2008, many Internet observers were impressed by the Obama campaigns use of Web-based tools and social organization to win a tough primary campaign against the “inevitable”, establishment candidacy of Hillary Clinton.  Yet, the lessons of the campaign seem to have been forgotten when the President took office in 2009.  

Now the President has another chance and he should consider creating his own “fifth column”.   I realize the phrase “fifth column” has negative connotations, since it has designated a group of supporters who are hidden within and undermine the enemy camp.  

But that may be exactly what the leader of an entrenched bureaucracy needs – a group of supporters, at all levels, who will help him achieve his goals.  The President can mobilize an informal network of the large number of change agents and innovators in Federal service, a network that can exist in parallel to the formal organization.  By doing this, he can also provide encouragement to those innovators, who may sometimes feel lonely and could get support from each other. 

Of course, there were be those who object to anyone, even the President, trying to sidestep the formal organization chart.  That’s nice in theory, but many long time senior executives in Federal service already know that, in practice, its the informal relationships that let them get things done.  Why shouldn’t the President learn these same techniques?

Various Internet collaboration tools, like wikis, social media and video chat, make creating this informal network a lot easier than would have been the case decades ago.  Indeed, some of this informal network already exists.  This week, for example, there is #SocialGov Summit 2013, hosted by the 18-month old Federal Social Media Community of Practice (http://www.howto.gov/communities/federal-web-managers-council/social-media).

Build on that base, expand it to a larger network of innovators and the President may find it easier to get things done – at least in the Executive Branch.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis

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