Government inefficiency created by representative democracy?

Can open data deliver government efficiency or is it just another in a long line of claims to reduce government inefficiency? A quick scan of the literature shows very little research on efficient government but a large amount on government inefficiency. Moreover, efficiency is often undefined or defined so broadly as any change creates efficiency. Finally, we have to consider whether we mean efficiency at the micro level of particular services or at the macro level of outcomes.

Government is designed, or implicit in its nature, to be inefficient because life is inefficient.   The design is there in two ways. First, government has to cover all aspects from life to death and beyond. It cannot choose what to regulate or avoid something that is particularly onerous. Could a private sector organisation have responded to Katrina, and the Gulf oil spill disaster, and the tornado season, and still stay in business?

Second, representative democracy is inefficient because it is a way to capture disparate views to create a common good.  Yet, we seem to accept that government has to be efficient, because whatever we are getting is somehow inefficient, without asking why or how government will be efficient.   One argument is that open data will change and alter our relationship with government, in much the same way that the advent of microcomputers did (or did not). Yet that change, real or imagined, does not replace the need for government and what it does both operationally and strategically.

An efficient government in the strict sense would be inhumane and counterproductive because it would be unnatural. Humans are not efficient and government is an expression of collective humanity. From a practical perspective, we want and need a government that is inefficient in allocating resources because it needs to have surge capacity and has the extra resources to redirect them at a moment’s notice. By that measure alone government cannot be efficient.

One could argue that inefficient governments are those that neither have the spare resources or the ability to redirect them as needed.  If you need 30k troops and heavy armour moved to the Korean Peninsula in 30 days, you can forget FedEx or American Airlines.  They do not have that capacity nor do they have the resources.  Therein we see the danger of believing the market will resolve the issues a government faces.  From the earliest ages to today, the market and the government have and operate by different logics.  They may overlap, but they will never meet.

There is an interesting argument in “The Myth of Efficient Government Service Mises Daily: Thursday, March 18, 2004 by Murray N. Rothbard” ( These writings do not look to make government efficient nor do they seek to change the role of government. Instead, they offer a different conception of the democratic arrangement within which government decisions are translated into action. They confuse the outcome from government as the same as that delivered by the market, and fail to realize that they have confused the outcome with the input.  The role of the “market” was at the election. The bureaucrat’s decision point, for delivering the service in question, is not amenable to the market if the political will is to be followed. One wonders if the landing at Normandy would be critiqued in the same way as deciding where and how to place a road.  What would the “market” have decided about the Normandy landings rather than government bureaucrats like Eisenhower.

The dream of an efficient government assumes somehow that the market logic can somehow replace political logic, or that we can replace political administration with market administration. The open data movement appears to accelerate this view by giving the appearance that it will allow the public to achieve control over the reins of government. In doing so it will deliver an “efficient” service that, the public has always wanted but was forever thwarted by the state.  If it were only that simple, we could have direct democracy.  The open data movement while well intentioned and much needed, is not a replacement for representative democracy. In itself, it cannot deliver direct democracy and it will not deliver efficient government.

Government has to deal issues from the mundane to the monumental and the ephemeral to the eternal. When it does, it cannot please everyone, which is where representative government becomes important. The challenge of democracy is to decide.  Any decision has winners and losers, but it cannot be any other way. The issue is not incomplete data or information, rather it is that conflicting understanding of the political good or the common good cannot be decided any other way.

To put this concretely, think about the last time you participated in or contributed to a planning consultation on a small road development plan, not a large one but just one involving a streetlight or a changed road layout. The monumental may get participants the mundane is unlikely to get participants. Yet, both have to be done.  Open data will raise awareness, but will it change the decision process? Even then, more information will not give me more knowledge or understanding.  If I cannot contextualize or understand the decision, then any decision will do, no matter how much information I have.

The open data movement, while well intentioned, is not going to deliver efficient government. It may will alter or adjust the current democratic relationship, but it will not replace it. Unless open data can translate into someone else collecting the bins, or removing the government from that role, then its only role is on the margins.  Open data will allow us to understand government and how the bureaucracy works, but will not change the democratic relationship. In many ways, open data is the answer to the wrong question. What is not a problem is the role of politics. Rather, the challenge is to translate the political will (generally understood) through political action into a bureaucracy and through the bureaucracy into an intended outcome.  The open data movement may shed more light on this process, but it is not changing it. In one sense, more information may not make it efficient.

What do I mean by that? I mean whether UK government today is more efficient than the rudimentary government in the time of Henry V.  Indeed, one could argue that it has become less efficient in that its role has expanded, potentially at the same rate, as that of its demands and needs.   If war is seen as an exceptional event full of special caveats, let us consider tax collecting.  Is tax collecting any more or less efficient today than it was under Henry V?

It would appear that when we talk of government efficiency and wanting an efficient government we are using it as a proxy for something else. Efficient government appears to be a proxy for one that delivers the outcomes we desire in the way that we perceive or believe it should be delivered rather than in the way that it is delivered.  Therein we see the danger for democracy because democracy is by its nature purposefully inefficient to slow down government action and in that inertia keep it from doing too much wrong and too much right.  Open data will not remove the need to decide.  To seek out efficiency as the end of government is to confuse the means with an end.  The end is not efficiency, but the common good. Alas, we no longer speak of or understand the common good and efficiency so that the belief that government must somehow deliver a Pareto optimal outcome has taken root.  Somehow, an efficient government is one that delivers, but without considering the good it delivers and why it delivers that good.

Yet, the challenge for open data promoters (still a laudable goal) or those who decries government inefficiency, is to show an efficient government and explain the metric that demonstrates why and how that government is efficient.  Once we have that we can begin to understand what we mean by government efficiency.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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