And why Americans should listen
David Cameron, the Conservative leader of Britain, has been actively proposing that we now live in a Post-Bureaucratic age. He has been promoting this across Britain and even spoke at TED via webcast. The concept is quite simple. The availability of data and the ease of connection between citizenry and government has moved us from a top-down government structure to a community-up structure. His primary example is that in many States here in the US public spending is, just that, public. The information on major projects spending is posted online for citizens to pull and review. But he takes this a step further. His goal is that any Pound spend above 25,000 ($39,200) would be published online and that private companies would be allowed to compete on price with the incumbent government vendor.
As further reported by the Economist, he has now proposed that public-sector organizations be run as co-ops. Eg. nurses could manage their clinics, job advisers could run over their employment offices, etc. The intention being that by running their own “business” the costs of operating will go down as internal waste goes down.
The debate is then: is all of this a good idea or will two awful things happen? One, government contracts will be reduced to a purely cost-based valuation, ignoring quality. And second, that co-ops will lead to inconsistent service across Britain as some co-ops become better funded than others. (personally I fear nurses could end up wearing something between a ManU jersey and a NASCAR car but that’s another story.)
What’s interesting is that Mr. Cameron has yet to propose the obvious solution. His example is based upon information being posted online and his theory is that we live in a “post-bureaucratic” age. My personal opinion is, I believe in both of these ideas because I believe that the Internet enables communities to become powerful. I believe that people should have access to their government’s information and that we live in an age where government will be improved by increasingly engaging the public to act. So what’s Mr. Cameron missing from his thesis?
He is missing the idea of “quality”. How can he maintain quality if government contracts are reduced to a cost-based bidding process? How can he ensure healthcare will be delivered effectively if the co-ops are run with individual P&Ls? (like they are here in the US.) As usual, the Conservatives in Britain are referencing US policy and attempting to optimize it to the British people’s benefit. But they cannot ignore the quality and consistency issues that we suffer from here in the US between rich and poor areas.
I also think there is a solution that can be used to help ensure quality and consistency. Citizens will need a feedback loop where they can comment, report and review the services they’re receiving. The people who are delivering the services, as well as the people delivering the review should both be account able to government. This would allow government to play the smaller role that Cameron is proposing (something I don’t totally agree with) because government would only be expected to play “mediator” between service givers and receivers.
This system of review would be very worthwhile here in the US, pushed out as a free txt message system or iPhone app. Followed up with email and posted to a website that tracks, visually, all the data coming in, allowing citizens to view how good or poor services are in their area. Most important however, would be tools provided by the government to ensure that the service providers (co-ops) would be able to learn and discuss best-practices across their region and nation. For government contracts it would be important, again, for government to mediate quality but this should be put in the hands of the men and women using the products and services not politicians who, no matter how altruistic their intentions, are simply not trusted.
Using digital services in this way we can all have a more effective society, one where we participate together.