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Does Government Have To Perfect?

“A group of leading social and information scientists and government practitioners met February 23-24, 2010 at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to lay out a research agenda to address grand challenges in information, technology, and governance.” – as the organizers of the workshop described it.

I was among the three dozen people who participated in this wide ranging discussion about the various trends in government and its use of technology.  But there was one critical, if unstated, question that was just below the surface in most of these discussions: how perfect does government have to be?

Traditionally, most government leaders would say that the public sector is expected never to make mistakes – although plenty of mistakes do happen.  Some of the participants in the workshop pointed out the various ways that e-government systems are vulnerable or can be the source of erroneous information.

Certainly, in some areas – such as protection of children from parental abuse – a single mistake can have tragic, fatal consequences.  But not all imperfections in government are that serious nor does every program area result in fatal tragedy when things go wrong.   Nevertheless, many elected officials feel they live in a world where the slightest imperfection is blown up in the next day’s media reports. 

In the face of the intensely combative style of politics that many of us have gotten used to, it is difficult to imagine getting a break from voters for any imperfection.  But consider the expectations that people have developed as the Internet has become a more important part of their lives.

One of the most successful Internet websites and perhaps the best example of Internet-based collaboration and collective action is the open encyclopedia, Wikipedia.  Clay Shirky, in his compelling book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations”, compares Wikipedia to traditional encyclopedia companies.

“Wikipedia … a chaotic process, with unpredictable and wildly uneven contributions, made by nonexpert contributors acting out of variable motivations, is creating a global resource of tremendous daily value.  A commercial producer of encyclopedias has to be efficient about finding and fixing mistakes… Wikipedia … does not have to be efficient − it merely has to be effective.  If enough people see an article, the chance that an error will be caught and fixed improves with time.  Because Wikipedia is a process, not a product, it replaces guarantees offered by institutions with probabilities supported by process: if enough people care enough about an article to read it, then enough people will care enough to improve it, and over time this will lead to a large enough body of good enough work to begin to take both availability and quality of articles for granted, and to integrate Wikipedia into daily use by millions.”

To the point about quality, researchers have found that the error rate in Wikipedia articles is no worse than those in the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

With Wikipedia as just one example of the kind of Internet-based activity that people value, despite its short term imperfections, is it possible that citizens may be more open to a similar approach in the public sector? − an approach that emphasizes citizen engagement (and even citizen delivery of services to other citizens), despite the imperfections of citizens, in contrast to the promise of perfection by government agencies?

Because it is seems so difficult to get things done perfectly in government, many newly elected officials start out proclaiming one or two major goals they want to accomplish.  Often, the major consequence of this approach is to make it easier for political opponents to know what to attack. 

The alternative that is more in synch with the way people increasingly operate on the Internet is to start many more than just a couple of initiatives, with a promise only of improvement, but not perfection. 

There are two other benefits.  First, this certainly makes it harder for those who oppose you merely for political reasons to decide what to attack.  Second, and partly because of the first benefit, you may find that only 5 of 100 initiatives fail. The rest eventually succeed in providing improvements that are visible and supported by the voters. 

So perhaps government does not have to try to be perfect all the time and if it doesn’t try to be perfect, it may actually work better.

Norm Jacknis njacknis@cisco.com March 1, 2010

For more about Wikipedia and its implications, one of the best recent books is: “The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia” by Andrew Lih.  See http://www.amazon.com/Wikipedia-Revolution-Nobodies-Greatest-Encyclopedia/dp/B002KAOS60/

 

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