Q: The new Brookings TechTank blog is devoted to understanding technology’s implications–especially as it impacts governance. It’s a truism that tech advances, like financial innovations, routinely outpace regulations. In a country that exalts technology and prizes transparency, but also where there are still no cameras allowed in the Supreme Court, is it possible that the gap between between innovation and commensurate legislation can ever be closed?
A: The public sector routinely trails the private sector in technology innovation. The government doesn’t have the same culture of risk-taking and experimentation found in many companies. The reason is that policymakers fear failure more than they value success. If they try something new and it fails, they will end up on the front page and be the object of ridicule. Opponents will condemn them for their foolhardy venture and question why they supported the new initiative. In this situation, it is easier to keep doing the same thing even though the processes often aren’t very effective at addressing specific problems.
What we need is a new culture of government that rewards innovation. There needs to be a new attitude that recognizes no one has definitive answers and what we need to do is try various solutions, track their performance, and see what works. Successes get scaled up and failures get shut down quickly. This kind of data-driven and adaptive enterprise is what makes businesses more effective at solving problems than the public sector. Until government agencies embrace change, it will be hard for them to become as innovative as their private counterparts.
—Darrell M. West is vice president and director of Governance Studies and holds the Douglas Dillon Chair at the Brookings Institute. He is founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. West’s studies include technology policy, electronic government, and mass media.