Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

Two Governments, Both Alike In Dignity

Disclaimer: I'm engaged to Frances Berriman, the front-end lead at the UK's Government Digital Service. She did not approve this post. It is, however, the product of many of our discussions. You'll understand shortly why this is relevant.

It seems entirely rational to be skeptical about governments doing things well. My personal life as a migrant to the UK is mediated by heaving bureaucracies, lawyer-greased wheels, and stupefyingly arbitrary rules. Which is to say nothing of the plights of my friends and co-workers -- Google engineers, mostly -- whose migration stories to the US are horrifying in their idiocy. Both the US and UK seem beholden to big-stupid: instead of trying to attract and keep the best engineers, both countries seem hell-bent to keep them out. Heaven forbid they make things of value here (and pay taxes, contribute to society, etc.)! It takes no imagination whatsoever for me to conjure the banality and cruelty that are the predictable outcomes of inflexible, anachronistic, badly-formulated policy.

You see it perhaps most clearly when this banality is translated to purely transactional mediums. PDFs that you must fax -- only to have a human re-type the results on the other end. Crazy use of phones (of course, only during business hours). Physical mail -- the slowest and worst thing for a migrant like myself -- might be the most humane form of the existing bureaucracy in the US. Your expectations are set at "paper", and physical checks and "processing periods" measured in weeks feel somehow of a piece. It has always "worked" thus.

It's befuddling then to have been a near witness to nothing short of the wholesale re-building of government services here in the UK to be easiest to navigate by these here newfangled computrons. And also just flat-out easy. The mantra is "digital by default", and they seem to be actually pulling it off. Let me count the ways:

  1. High-level policy support for the effort
  2. Working in the open. Does your government do its development on github?
  3. Designing services for the humans that use them, not the ones who run them
  4. Making many processes that were either only-physical or damn infuriating near-trivial to do online
  5. Making key information understandable. Give the UK "limited corporation" page a view. Now compare to the California version. Day, meet night.
  6. Saving both government and citizens massive amounts of money in the process.

They even have a progress bar for how many of the ministries have been transformed in this way.

Over the same timeframe I've known a few of the good folks who have put themselves in the position of trying to effect changes like this at Code for America. It's anathema in the valley to say anything less than effusive about CFA -- anything but how they're doing such good, important work. How CFA has the potential to truly transform the way citizens and government interact. Etc, etc. And it's all true. But while CFA has helped many in the US understand the idea that things could be better, the UK's Government Digital Service has gone out and done it.

So what separates them?

First, the sizes of the challenges need to be compared. The US has 5x the population, an economy that's 6x larger, and a federalist structure that makes fixing many problems more daunting than most UK citizens can possibly imagine. Next, it should be noted that London is a better place to try to hire the Right People (TM). Yes, it's much more expensive to live here, but software salaries are also much lower (both in relative and absolute terms). There wasn't as much tech going on here as in the valley to start with, and the gold-rush to produce shiny but less competent versions of existing websites for world+dog (aka: "the app ruse") hasn't created the engineering hiring frenzy here that it has stateside.

There's also a general distrust in the American psyche about the core proposition of the government doing good things. Public-spiritedness seems to so many of my generation a sort of dusty nostalgia that went the way of hemp and tie-dye. Close encounters with modern American government do little to repair the image. But all of those seem surmountable. The US has more of everything, including the Right People (TM). Indeed, the UK is managing an entire first-world's set of services on a smaller GDP.

Why then do US public services, to be blunt, largely still suck? The largest differences I've observed are about model. Instead of having a mandate to change things from the inside, the organizational clout to do it, and enough budget to make a big dent out of the gates (e.g. CFA is in the painful position of needing to be invited while at the same time trying to convince talented and civic-minded engineers and designers to work for well below industry pay for a limited time on projects that don't exist yet.

Put yourselves in the shoes of a CFA Fellow: you and your compatriots are meant to help change something important in the lives of citizens of a municipality that has "invited" you but which is under no real pressure to change, has likely moved no laws or contracts out of the way to prepare for your arrival, and they know you're short-timers. Short-timers that someone else is taking all the risk on and paying for?

What lasting change will you try to effect when you know that you've got a year (tops) and that whatever you deliver must be politically palatable to entrenched interests? And what about next year's Fellows? What will they be handed to build on? What lasting bit of high-leverage infrastructure and service-design will they be contributing to?

The contrast between that and the uncomfortably-named "civil servants" of the GDS could not be more stark. I don't get the sense that any of them think their job is a lifetime assignment -- most assume they'll be back at agencies any day now, and some of the early crop have already moved on in the way nerds tend to do -- but at the pub they talk in terms of building for a generation, doing work that will last, and changing the entire ethos of the way services are produced and consumed. Doing more human work. And then they wake up the next morning and have the authority and responsibility to go do it.

I don't want to be down on CFA. Indeed, it feels very much like the outside-government precursor to the GDS: mySociety. mySociety was put together by many of the same public-spirited folks who initially built the Alpha of what would a year later become and the GDS. Like CFA, mySociety spent years pleading from the outside, making wins where it could -- and in the process refining ideas of what needed to change and how. But it was only once the model changed and they grabbed real leverage that they were able to make lasting change for the better.

I fear CFA and the good, smart, hard-working people who are pouring their lives into it aren't missing anything but leverage -- and won't make the sort of lasting change they want without it. CFA as an organization doesn't seem to understand that's the missing ingredient.

America desperately needs for its public services to make the same sort of quantum leap that the UK's are making now. It is such an important project, in fact, that it cannot be left to soft-golved, rose-tinted idealism. People's lives are being made worse by mis-placed public spending, badly executed projects, and government services that seem to treat service as an afterthought.

CFA could be changing this, and we owe it to ourselves and our friends there to ask clearly why that change hasn't been forthcoming yet. The CFA Fellows model has no large wins under its belt, no leverage, and no outward signs of introspection regarding its ability to deliver vs. the GDS model. Lets hope something larger is afoot beneath that placid surface.

Update: I failed to mention in the first version of this post that the one of the largest philosophical differences between the two countries is the respective comfort levels with technocratic competence.

There exists a strain of fatalism about government in the US that suggests that because government doesn't often do things well, it shouldn't try. It's a distillation of the stunted worldviews of the libertarian and liberal-tarian elite and it pervades the valley. Of course governments that nobody expects anything of will deliver crappy service; how could it be otherwise?

What one witnesses here in the UK is the belief that regardless of what some theory says, it's a problem when government does its job badly. To a lesser degree than I sense in years past, but still markedly moreso than in the US, the debate here isn't about can the government get good at something, but why isn't it better at the things the people have given it responsibility for?

As a result, the question quickly turns how one can expect a government to manage procurement of technical, intricate products for which it's the only buyer (or supplier) without the competence to evaluate those products -- let alone manage operations of them.

Outsourcing's proponents had their go here and enormous, open-ended, multi-year contracts yielded boondoggle after boondoggle. By putting contractors in a position of power over complexity, and starving the in-house experts of staffing and resources to match, the government forfeited it's ability to change its own services to meet the needs of citizens.

What changed with was that the government decided that it had to get good at the nuts and bolts of delivering the services, outsourcing bits and pieces of small work, but owning the whole and managing it in-house. Having the Right People (TM) working on your team matters. If they're at a contractor, they have a different responsibility and fiduciary duty. When the ownership of the product is mostly in-house, ambiguities borne of incomplete contract theory are settled in favor of the citizen (or worst case, government) interest, not the profit motive.

The folks say "government should only do what only government can do", but my observation has been that that's not the end of the discussion: doing it well and doing it badly are still differentiable quantities. And doing better by citizens is good. Clearing space to do good is the essential challenge.