Ultimately, what Senator Laura Ebke and her colleagues at the Nebraska legislature are endeavouring to bring about can be expressed in two words: improved government.
Either by (1) having government do what it is better at doing than non-government actors--which watchful task includes amongst other things the decommissioning of governmental services and the barring of unwholesome state interference. Or by (2) ensuring that government does what it is supposed to do in the best possible way.
I believe that government does do us a lot of good, and that the efforts of Senator Ebke and her colleagues are utterly important to make sure that government is an improver of our lives.
For all of those who doubt that (a) government can be an improver or that (b) government can be improved, and for those who (a) believe in the possibility of improving government and (b) consider it their calling or duty to improve government, I urgently recommend reading Matt Ridley's fascinating piece on government digital service in Great Britain which is
not just trying to make government services online as easy as shopping at Amazon or booking an airline ticket. It is also reshaping the way the public sector does big IT projects to make sure cost and time overruns are history.
What Mr Bracken calls the “waterfall” approach to such big projects in the past consisted of “writing most when you know least”. The people in charge wrote enormous documents to try to specify the comprehensive requirements of the end users, did not change them as technology changed and issued vast, long and lucrative contracts to big companies.
Instead, Mr Maude and Mr Bracken are teaching the civil service to start small, fail fast, get feedback from users early and evolve the thing as you go along. So those designing an online service begin with a discovery phase, lasting six to 12 weeks, then build an “alpha” prototype of a working software service in less than three months, followed by commissioning a private “beta”, to be used by a private audience of specialist users. Only once rigorously tested is this opened up to the public, sometimes in a controlled way. And only later is the old service turned off.
This is exactly the sort of recipe for success championed by the economist Tim Harford in his book Adapt. Harford pointed out that whether pacifying Iraq, designing an aircraft or writing a Broadway musical, those who succeed allow for plenty of low-cost trial and error and incremental change. It’s the mechanism Charles Darwin discovered that Mother Nature uses. Rather than a grand “creationist” plan or a big leap, natural selection incrementally discovers success through trial and failure. From the English language to an airliner, everything successful has emerged by small steps.
The successful IT systems we all use, from Facebook to BBC News, were all built this way. Yet government kept trying to do things by grand plan. The history of information technology explains how we went wrong. In the beginning all things related to the web, in public and private sectors, became the property of the high priests in the IT department, as the only people who understood the technology. They thought mainly of the needs of producers of content, rather than users. Much of the private sector wrestled digital content out of the hands of the IT department long ago, but in much of Whitehall that’s where it still lay until recently.
Mr Bracken and his lieutenants have turned Whitehall upside down, collapsing the profession of chief information officer (head of IT) altogether.
Do make sure to read the entire fascinating account - at the source.