Bureaucracy and Trust

Yesterday, I spent the day at a meeting on “city innovation” at Harvard’s Kennedy School, with 30 or so CIOs, CTOs, and other technology executives from around the country. I did a short presentation on predictive analytics and cities (slides here) — thanks so much to everyone who sent in comments and who emailed me with suggestions.

The “aha!” moment of the day came during a coffee break conversation with Boston CIO Bill Oates.  Bill was describing how frustrated he felt by the city’s procurement process (this is widely known as a problem across government).  He said that he felt like he was “handcuffed” by having to prove — up front, and before actually doing anything — that he wasn’t being dishonest, wasn’t corrupt, and was serving the city’s best interests.  What if, he asked, he could instead proceed ahead and prove — after the fact — that his actions were pure.  Using transparency, rather than bureaucracy, to establish accountability and ultimately trust.

This strikes me as a big idea.

What we have now — in the era of increasing information liquidity — is an opportunity to re-think the way we establish trust.  This idea has been proven out by web services (think Ebay, Airbnb, StackExchange), and I think it’s time we start thinking about how this applies to public sector policy and regulation.

After the conversation with Bill, I ran back to my seat and sketched out the idea, then quickly turned it into a slide for my presentation in the following session.  This is what I came up with:


The idea that the purpose of bureaucracy and (certain forms of ) regulation is to establish trust is perhaps obvious. But something about it struck me as a new way of looking at things.

It’s an idea that superblogger David Alpert gets at in his coverage of the Uber / DC fight, which he describes as a conflict between the “permission model” and the “innovation model”.

I understand that it’s hard to get past the permission-based way of thinking.  Before information was available in real-time, it was the best way to make sure bad things didn’t happen.  But we have a new tool — real-time information — that makes a new approach possible.  Yesterday at Harvard, we were discussing this in the context of government procurement.  At USV, we’ve been talking about it a lot in the context of online privacy (I’m pushing Brad to write about his idea for this soon).

Hopefully you’ll find this helpful — I think I’ll be coming back to it w/ some frequency now as we continue to work on this stuff.

5 comments on “Bureaucracy and Trust”

Personally, I’d favor “results” or “effectiveness” over innovation. Innovation’s great, but it’s not the goal per se. The problem with the bureaucratic model is that it ends up obviating the need for results in many instances. All that matters is that protocol was followed. Meanwhile, many basic, non-innovative, services could be provided more effectively along with transparency and accountability.

Anyway, this is excellent and I love where you’re going with it.

Right that makes sense.

I do think of innovation as a goal – in that being free to innovate is critical to solving problems creatively and effectively.

But yes, results are the ultimate goal, and I am completely with you on the cover your ass dynamics that blind protocol following can create.

I worked two years as the head of innovation, business and economic development agency lead for the State of Illinois. After building successful companies for 10 years and then my work in a top post in government, I’m familiar with this dilemma. Moving from permission-based thinking to innovation is far more complex than just attaining government trust. I believe that attaining government trust is insufficient to eliminate the need to demonstrate proof of outcome before engagement/procurement. Even if you overcome the internal government bureaucracy of implementation driving internal trust with key stakeholders, you cannot mobilize since what drives government decision is deeply connected with public opinion and external interests (media, corporate, community). Ultimately, these externalities often drive the bus regardless of internal trust. And while everyone (inside and outside) agrees with the notion of accountability, transparency and innovation in principle, you are dealing with a zero sum game when it comes time to implement upon choosing difficult tradeoffs on investment. There are serious gaps in leadership in government at all levels to assume that principle or doing what’s right will prevail over external influence. I realize my next example is not the same, but everyone agrees with education as a top priority, does this mean that we have figure out a solution to get out of this mess? What or who do we trust on implementation is the question. The best strategy is to identify small disruptive, outcome driven and vertically integrated use cases that can scale. Selling to government a predictive analytics platform for the promise of better outcomes is the 2010 version of selling big ERP, BI and ETL systems for a better enterprise back in the 90’s. It didn’t work then, it may not work as a horizontal solution now. As Jed said, sustainable “results” and “effectiveness” is a more realistic proxy on how the public today is measuring public administrators and officials in general, and so whoever envisions innovative approaches to adapt to this thinking will drive effective engagement.

I just came across this article through some research I am doing for a product that is aimed to fight bureaucracy through using new age real-time systems, just as you mentioned. Since its been some time since you published this article have you had any additional insights or thoughts on this post?

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