For the People, By the People in the 21st Century

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Jennifer Pahlka on Code for Am... Tyler Cowen on The Complacent ...

mobile.jpg How can government be made more user-friendly and to work better for everybody? That's the question that seems to motivate Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America and this week's EconTalk guest. As you might expect, there's some divergence in Pahlka's and Roberts's views as to what government ought to do, and I suspect the same holds true of you...So please let us know your thoughts on this week's episode. As always, we love to hear from you.

1. Code for America's website claims, "The two biggest levers for improving people's lives at scale are technology and government." To what extent do you believe this to be true?

2. How does Pahlka describe the use of empathy in guiding Code for America's project designs? Is this the same sort of empathy Paul Bloom recently spoke with Roberts about? Is Bloom's empathy more dangerous in the public or private sector? Is Pahlka's private sector empathy transferable to the public sector?

3. Pahlka and Roberts agree that there's a distinction between what we can do alone and what we can/must do together, which is where government has its role. How do they differ as to where exactly this line should be drawn? Is it more important to make government more efficient or to make government smaller?

4. Roberts suggests that the sort of "blue-sky thinking" that Code for America employs doesn't come naturally to government. What reasons does Pahlka offer to explain this, and to what extent do you think she's correct?

5. How can we make government service "the most honorable profession in the country," as Pahlka suggests, and to what extent would this be beneficial?

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Rod Miller writes:

It is true that innovation in govt. is difficult. Procurement for larger govt. is more difficult (because of the review process and complexity of the contracts) than small govt. Ms. Pahlka alludes to one of the main reasons govt can't innovate. It is the competitive and blame oriented nature of our current politics. Many politicians are afraid to chance failing because they will get it thrown back in their face during a campaign. The other reason govt. has problems is the civil service. The civil service makes it impossible to fire managers without the skills to make govt work better. Small govt particularly those with rules like CA's Prop 13 have limited tax revenue so spending has to be prioritized.

SaveyourSelf writes:

1. "The two biggest levers for improving people's lives at scale are technology and government."

  • If that were true the USSR would have been a paradise.
  • Most governments are undeniable monopolies. Monopolies undermine technology whenever possible because new ideas serve as competition. Competition is kryptonite to Monopolies. There is at least one exception to that generality. Governments seem to embrace new ideas that happen to involve weapon systems and information gathering--especially if they can be kept secret.
Kelly Hall writes:

I think Ms. Pahlka is only partially correct when she attributes the onerous and complicated government procurement regulations to the taxpayers. In my experience, procurement rules (like safety rules) are written from government experience with non-ethical suppliers. I see two primary reasons for the complex FARs (federal acquisition rules) and DFARs (defense federal acquisition supplement).

Initially, I believe the rules of the FARs are demanded by congress in response to getting ripped off by unethical suppliers. A good example of this was the C-5A procurement in the 1960s when Lockheed spent so much of their own money on a program that was overrunning it's (intentionally underbid) budget that when they were unable to borrow any more money, congress was faced with either giving Lockheed extra money, or letting the company go out of business, with shareholders, employees, and the Air Force all crying "you have to help!".

Secondly, I believe the complexity often comes from contractors who want to prevent competition. An example: Most defense projects that include software now require the contractor to have "CMMI Level 3" certification, which is generally too expensive for small startup companies to pay for. This means the small, commercial teams that Ms. Pahlka champions can't even bid.

The revolving doors at the Pentagon are great for letting industry people write the acquisition laws that further entrench the same old suppliers.

Amy Willis writes:

@Kelly, terrific points, with some examples I wasn't familiar with- thanks! I want to particularly emphasize your second one. In the private sector as well, many regulations are created and/or maintained for the benefit of those regulated.

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