Open data creates inefficient government and why this is good

Diagram of US Federal Government and American ...

Diagram of US Federal Government and American Union. Published: 1862, July 15. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The promise that open data will improve government efficiency is misplaced.  Every administration claims it will make government effective and efficient.  We had Clinton’s Reinventing Government and Bush’s reforms after 11 September.  Neither has delivered as it promised. In large part, they failed because they started from the idea that government can be managed like a business.  Today, open data is being used to make a similar process.  However, it is the answer to the wrong question.  We need to understand that open data is making democratic government inefficient and that is a good thing.

The mistaken view of reform

Open data’s promise appears, on the surface, to offer a way to reform government.  We are promised that open data will make the government more efficient. When these claims are made, we face several problems. How is efficiency understood or defined. What is the evidence that a government is efficient? Is it efficient in process, outcomes, or both? A scan of the literature shows very little research on efficient government. Instead, we have a large amount of research on government inefficiency.  We seem to understand intuitively what inefficient government is but we seem unable to explain what an efficient government is or does.  When efficiency is undefined or defined broadly, then any change can potentially be seen to create efficiency. What we need to do to move beyond the definitions is to consider that government may be designed to be inefficient.

Democratic government is designed to be inefficient.

What most people may not grasp is that American government is designed to be inefficient. By that, I mean the political process is designed so that power is exercised indirectly and with difficulty.  One could expand this argument to say that any democratic government is designed to be inefficient. The inefficiency comes in part because it responds to the public’s will.  In this area, the American government is a special case because the founders wanted the government to rely upon the people and the states in such a way that would limit its power to act unilaterally and decisively. In the American system, the founders created checks and balances to slow down the political process to avoid government reacting to popular passions. We can see this in the famous 10th federalist paper in which Madison describes the need for faction to check faction.

In most cases, the bureaucracy reflects the political process. However, it is too easy to say that bureaucracies are inefficient and cannot be changed.  Instead, we need to consider how open data’s ability to make the political process inefficient is also part of the way to make the bureaucracy efficient.   What open data may do is change the way the government works in a particular area, but it cannot change the nature of the government.  We can see why the government’s nature is inefficient for three broad reasons.

Government does the dirty work that no one else can do.

First, government has to cover all aspects from life to death and beyond. The basic idea is that the government has to do the work no one else wants to do.  For example, the wicked problems, like foreign policy, Medicaid, and disaster relief cannot be outsourced to someone else.  A private sector organisation could not have responded to the damage created by Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf oil spill disaster and the tornado season. The Federal and State governments were in a place to respond. Government has to deal issues from the mundane to the monumental and the ephemeral to the eternal.  When it does, it cannot please everyone. Democracy gives us a process to decide between are conflicting understanding of the political good or the common good. Therein we see the second reason for inefficiency by design.

The common good means we need to bring more people into the decision

Second, representative democracy is inefficient because it has sustained the common good. Political leaders have to weave disparate views into a common good.  In many ways, the concern about efficiency can be seen as a criticism of representative democracy.  Implicit in these arguments is an impatience with the need to show the common good.  Instead, we are told that the lawmakers are gridlocked and the gridlock is ruining the country. We are rarely told what a more efficient government would do and whether that would allow the public a greater role in the process.

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. We still need government for what it does both operationally and strategically. Neither the strategic nor the operational can be made more efficient in their nature without changing the essential nature of government.  Particular programmes may be improved, but the nature of the democratic process, as well as its bureaucracy, cannot be changed open data.

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.  For example, governments will have to stockpile material and resources that may never be used.  They do this to have the surge capacity and the extra resources when they are called upon in an emergency. By that measure alone government cannot be efficient.  In turn, we see that the open data helps us to understand that role and get involved.

The more open data gets people involved the less efficient government.

Third, the democratic process becomes increasingly inefficient the more the public are involved.  What this means is that the open data movement gets more people involved, either directly or indirectly, with the government.  When the public are more involved, the politicians and the political process have to adapt.  For example, we can see open data applications that allow people to track the money from campaign donations, voting records, and political meetings.  With these tools, the public are now having the potential for greater awareness and greater indirect involvement. As a vocal constituency that can influence the political process the public, become a greater factor in the process.  The public’s attention may not change the underlying decision, but it does need politicians and the political process to react to them.  One can only imagine if Lyndon Johnson would have been president, let alone vice-president if the public were able to know how he was financed by the Brown and Root.  Even back in the 1930s, Johnson understood that oil interests could not finance him so he needed a different financial backer free from the oil interest image.  Today, open data would help us to see that relationship and act accordingly.

When we complain about an inefficient government, we may need to thank open data for making sure it happens.  In the American system, the founders created checks and balances to slow down the political process. They wanted to avoid government reacting to popular passions. As mentioned above, the 10th Federalist Paper describes the need for faction to check faction. What open data allows is for this to occur quickly and effectively.

At the same time, open data lets us understand how the bureaucracy works.  Here is where it may yet help us improve government.   When open data translates into better waste collections, or improved planning process, we can say it has made government more effective.  What it will not do and cannot do is change the democratic relationship.  Unless we understand that open data creates inefficiency within the democratic process, we will be forcing it to answer to the wrong question.  Open data is making the political process work with greater transparency. We can see the political will (generally understood) translate into political action through the bureaucracy to an intended outcome.

We may yet see the politicians and the political process adapt to open data.  Until then, we should enjoy the inefficiency created by open data because it may signal that democracy is working even if government is not.




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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