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.
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?
© 2015 Norman Jacknis