Whatever ultimately led to the resignation last week of Kathleen Sebelius, the health secretary who presided over Barack Obama’s healthcare reform, her name is linked in the American mind to last year’s mismanaged rollout of the government’s healthcare website. It turns out to be much harder to introduce new technologies into the public sector than the private sector. It always has been, notes Aneesh Chopra, Mr Obama’s former chief technology officer, in his new book. In 1887, when typewriters were already “critical infrastructure” in most businesses, the federal government was scarcely using them at all.
Mr Chopra defends the administration’s innovations in such sweeping terms, though, that one begins to wonder whether some larger hubris is to blame for its failures. Innovative State might be called a policy autobiography. Its tone is grandiose, somewhere between a university admissions essay and an Academy Awards acceptance speech. “In early 2012,” he writes, “I informed the President that I would be leaving the administration to run for office in Virginia, as part of a longer-term vision to implement a more innovative government in a state that, at Jamestown in 1607, had served as the birthplace of American democracy.” Of the “open government” reforms he championed, he says: “There doesn’t appear to be an ‘other side’ to the argument, not when the benefits are so obvious.”
“This isn’t about bigger,” Mr Chopra writes. “This isn’t about smaller. This is about smarter.” But arguments about the size of government are a straw man. Few important politicians make them any more. Both Republicans and Democrats have for decades championed lean but effective government. The Republican view, that many government duties ought to be handed over to business people, has triumphed – but in an ironic way. Partly because George W Bush was distracted by war, privatisation has for 25 years been carried out by Democratic presidents.
Mr Chopra is a devotee of the “open innovation” model pioneered by Henry Chesbrough of Berkeley. In the private sector, this means seeking ideas outside the company as well as inside, but Mr Chopra believes the same lessons can be applied to government. He lauds a fellow White House aide’s plan for “a fresh portfolio of services that blurred lines between the public and private sector”. Mr Chopra describes Mr Obama’s goal as “seeking to strengthen the handshake between the public and private sectors to benefit the American people”. The benefits are visible in the way profitable television stations and websites have piggybacked on government data provided by the National Weather Service, or the $65bn app industry that has grown up since President Bill Clinton ordered high-precision GPS data to be made accessible to the public.
What is appropriate for business, however, is not appropriate for government. Adventurism, a willingness to flout the rules – these can be excellent things in a start-up but they are a menace in a democratic republic. Mr Chopra does not see this. He applauds the Just Do It awards in which Jeff Bezos, Amazon chief executive, “would honour employees for implementing their thoughtful ideas without seeking permission – even if the resulting project didn’t succeed”. If the US government had such awards, the Iraq war and Obamacare would have won them all.
Similarly, Mr Chopra identifies “stall” – the moment when profit growth turns negative – as a danger point in the growth of young companies. But stall can be good. Government programmes should not be so dynamic that they come to serve ends different from the ones they were set up to serve.
Before his White House days, Mr Chopra was a secretary of technology in Virginia. He was energetic but clearly deaf to the idea that certain “barriers” between government and business are there for a reason. When he wanted to increase the numbers in the state taking the GED, a test-based equivalent to a high-school degree, he discovered that Virginia’s cable companies had a store of broadcast programmes to help candidates prepare. “Couldn’t we convince the cable companies to voluntarily upload the [Public Broadcasting Service] tapes and offer free access through their on-demand platforms?” he asked. He sure could, with a “single phone call to two of the state’s dominant cable companies, Comcast and Cox Communications”.
Mr Chopra does not ask in what sense business people can ever be said to respond “voluntarily” to a request from an aide to a governor who regulates their industry. We should pay attention. Power in Washington is a triangle of technology, business and politics. The first of these is often a pretext for allowing the second to dominate the third.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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