Government and technology from the perspective of politicians
25 December 2014

I read last week two fascinating books about the relation between technology, transparency, and government from the perspective of politicians and bureaucrats. The literature is so positive about the way technology can make public policies more efficient that I wanted to explore how things are perceived from the other side. It seemed reasonable to look into the incentives that are misaligned between citizens and their representatives in order to explain why we remain in an arguably suboptimal situation.

Innovative State by Aneesh Chopra, former CTO of Obama, and Citizenville by Gavin Newsom, the Lieutenant Governor of California, and Lisa Dickey, differ in the audience they have in mind, but they are surprisingly similar in their purpose1 and the ground they cover. They both review the initiatives that they lead while in office and discuss their successes and the reasons why some of their projects failed. It is unsurprising that they both coincide in pointing out the role of the bureaucratic rank-and-file as one of the main sources of resistance to the adoption of new technologies and habits. However, the explanation, while plausible, is unconvincing —it is cheap talk now, and it is not obvious why they would not simply start programs and blame bureaucrats to gain popular support.

For a political scientist it is far more interesting to read some of the less developed ideas that point out to the general public distrust they perceived in the changes they proposed, the lack of visibility —and consequently, the lack of an electoral reward— of policies that require a high effort, and the uncertainty about outcomes that comes with any original proposal. It looks like the limits to the expansion of technology in government boil down to a particular kind of the down-up dilemma. This is, politics as usual.

  1. The main authors are very clear about their political ambitions in the short run.