Open up your local newspaper (OK, your favorite news app) to the technology section, and some themes will quickly become apparent — fast-paced innovation, nimble adaptation, and, occasionally, big pay outs. Click over to the government section, and you’ll become aware of an alternative narrative — stagnation, bureaucracy, inefficient use of funds, and sex scandals.
To be fair, the government and tech industry serve two very distinct and different purposes, so it makes sense that they abide by different rules and cultures. There are things each could stand to learn from the other — many a struggling startup would benefit from a good sex scandal, for example. But the U.S. government would benefit greatly by learning a few lessons from the adaptive nature of the tech industry. Five of them are outlined here:
1. Collaboration, real-time feedback, and iteration are key.
Whether you’re talking about hardware, software, or complex policy issues, nobody gets it completely right the first time. Here’s the thing, people don’t expect you to — even the iPhone keeps coming out with new versions. The key to success is not omniscient perfection, but rather the willingness to bring all the stakeholders together in conversation about issues and solutions (bugs and work-arounds, in tech speak) for the best, most innovative outcomes.
Technology breaks and is limited by shortcomings that engineers never even dreamed of. Policies have implications that are broad and unforeseeable. Only by talking to all the people that are affected by them, soliciting their feedback and ideas for improvement, and adapting accordingly can we really hope to come to positive solutions that work.
*By the way, for an example of a government official who’s using technology to drive collaboration, feedback, and solution-oriented conversation, check out California Assemblyman Phil Ting’s Reset SF platform.
2. Recruiting and retaining top talent is critical for a competitive edge.
The perks offered at many a tech company would make your grandmother blush — afternoon donut carts, pool tables, and remote work days (assuming, of course, you don’t work at Yahoo!). Google has even stepped up where our government has not yet been able to and offers domestic partners of same sex couples health care benefits. Because they understand that a number of potential employees in the pool of the best and brightest are gay, and they want those people to work for Google.
Also in that pool are nationals from other countries (that’s right, immigrants and even *gasp* “illegals”). Many of these people come to this country because they buy into our notion of the American dream, upward mobility, and opportunity for all. They choose to come here for their educations because they’ve heard it’s the best money can buy. But once we’ve educated them, we make it extremely difficult for them to get the appropriate visas to stay here and work.
Yes, of course that limits their options. But it limits ours more by removing countless qualified, smart, driven people from the hiring pool. The U.S. is fortunate in that some really brilliant, motivated people want to live, work, and pay taxes here. Please, for god’s sakes, let’s make it easy for them to do so, before they change their minds.
3. Never been done before is a key sign of opportunity (not to be mistaken for an indication of impossibility).
In tech, we’re rewarded for thinking big. Ambitious thoughts don’t necessarily move mountains, but they do raise the bar for what we think is possible. Bonus points are awarded when those big thoughts are accompanied by practical ideas for execution.
Our government, on the other hand, seems to take policies that worked in the past at face value as roadmaps for future plans and policies (constitutional gun access for all? Sure that made sense…in the 1700s), and things which have never been done before are regarded as impossible (or political suicide, which translates to the same thing). Unless our local, state, and national leaders begin to reimagine what is possible, we will never rise to address the enormous challenges that are facing our planet today.
4. People will do a whole lot for a whole little. Hope and promise move mountains.
Startups grow from very small seeds — overcrowded garages, abundant supplies of Budweiser, and midnight oil. When you think about the Googles, Facebooks, and Modcloths (a personal fave) of the world, it’s easy to underestimate the dedication, blind faith, and risk that those initial employees and investors took. But there they were, working for little or nothing, with absolutely no certainty that anything would ever pan out or pay off. For every Facebook, there are thousands of companies that do not make it — companies made up of people for whom the risk never pays off and just leaves them in debt. So why do the entrepreneurs keep doing it? Because of the hope for something big.
Tapping into that hope is what propelled Barack Obama to be elected the first black president of the United States (and a Hawaiian, no less!). Regardless of individual feelings about the effectiveness of his presidency, the tidal wave of support and action that arose in 2008 from traditionally uninterested and disenfranchised people was astounding. The same political will can be mobilized to fight the issues that vex all of us, and it needs to be.
5. Well-fed people are more productive.
Remember earlier when we mentioned the perks that come from working at a tech company (hellllllo donut cart)? You’d be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t at least offer healthy snacks, if not one, some, or all catered meals each a week. Do these companies offer this because they’re rolling in extra cash and don’t know how to spend it? Because the boss lady has a thing for curves? Or because, if she feeds her employees lunch, they won’t have an excuse to leave the office all day? No (OK, option three is a half truth). They do this because well-fed people are more productive — they’re proven to think more clearly, work harder, and have better attitudes.
We owe it to our citizens to provide them with this same advantage. Whether we’re talking about underprivileged children in schools (you try learning long division on an empty stomach) or struggling families living in food deserts, we can’t expect people to succeed — much less maintain healthy lifestyles and contribute positively to society — without affordable access to proper nutrition.
Will providing all school children with healthy, daily afternoon snacks be cheap? Probably not. It’s called an investment. Guess what? Successful companies, people, and countries make them all the time.
Should our government adopt widespread work from home policies, give away free snacks at the DMV, and implement large-scale changes faster than you can say Microsoft tablet? Probably not. But we would all benefit from our government adopting the sense of purpose and urgency that drives every tech startup that’s ever made it — the sense that if we don’t collaborate, think big, and tackle challenges head on, we won’t survive.
In recent years, the U.S. government has regularly been on the verge of shut down because our elected leaders can’t compromise … on anything. The only thing our two major political parties can agree on is that we’re getting it wrong. This isn’t just an American problem — our planet is going through the sixth mass extinction in its multibillion-year history, and we still can’t agree on measures to curb global warming. We would do well to adopt some of these lessons from the tech industry quickly, before we’ve passed the opportunity to do so.