09.11.08

Rewarding Innovation with your Vote

Posted in Politics and Public Affairs at 3:03 PM

I was reading a Robert Scoble blog post just now. Honestly, that’s something I try to avoid, but what can I say, I’m very click-y today.

Scoble was reminding us of his idea that the United States needs a chief technology officer (CTO)., and that he thinks Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig is just the guy to take that on. While I’m not hear to advocate for or against Mr. Lessig being offered such a position, the idea reminded me of something that is critical in my personal political decision-making, particularly at the presidential level, who will run the government with creativity and innovation?

Think about something for a second. If a presidential candidate tells you he or she will fix health care, and you believe him or her, you also have to believe that the “fix” will get through the gauntlet of lobbyists, interest groups, congressional pork-grabbers, and hammering of the opposing party. Because even if the candidate’s proposal is a good idea, the other party will not want to offer up a victory. So, assuming the candidate does pass that health care plan, it will, in all likelihood, be less than the promise was, and will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many ordinary citizens who drank Kool-Aid during a political campaign.

Ditto any other campaign-born initiative that requires the passage of legislation and/or major overhauls to the structure of government entities.

On the other hand, a president can make a big mark on domestic and foreign policy within the executive branch, both by appointing smart, honest, innovative agency heads, and establishing opportunities for new ideas to flourish within and across those agencies that the president controls. A smart energy secretary could, for example, direct appropriated funds to pilot projects that support research into a particular plug-in hybrid technology. A health policy czar could hire department heads whose backgrounds are in public health, and who therefore focus on preventative care for the uninsured (saves money), cessation of bad habits like drug use (reduces both mortality and crime), or AIDS prevention within the next generation of gay teens. Creative-thinking state department section heads could forestall military interaction with under-developed economies by promote US trade before China swoops in. And a national CTO could rewrite the structure of technology planning and acquisition within the federal government, integrating lon-germ planning efforts, and allowing procurers to buy and install new technology with a quicker turn-around.

No presidential candidate could or would run on issues like making sure the IRS computer system is not obsolete before it is installed, or developing effective information management tools for government managers on the go. But a president whose hiring priorities emphasized innovation and gave executives the authority to overturn systems that do not work would arguably do more to improve the effectiveness of the way government functions than almost anything else, especially if passing legislation is involved.

I believe Barack Obama is much more likely to seek out innovators than is John McCain. For one thing, the recent ideological steamroller that is the current Republican administration has a lot to do with my interest in this topic. The last eight years are littered with examples of ideology, political loyalty and/or cronyism trumping competence in the hiring of executive branch leaders. For all his recent talk of change, McCain’s reliance on lobbyists and other Washington hacks as advisors does not lead me to believe that toppling the current infrastructure and replacing it with the best and the brightest is at the top of his list, or, quite frankly, anywhere on it. Obama certainly has his share of politically connected types, but you’ll also find a good many academics, former diplomats and others who actually want to do the work of making government better, more efficient, more responsive, and more sure-footed, especially when it comes to technology.

As Thomas Frank points out in his new book, Wrecking Crew, a large strain of the conservative movement has no interest in making it better. In extreme cases, they actively seek to break government, in order to further their efforts to destroy support for its work. In less extreme cases, the “smaller government” mantra that seems to be tattooed onto the forehead of many Republican appointees means they’ll lack the enthusiasm or the creativity to be good at their jobs. And people who aren’t suited to their jobs, or don’t like their jobs, tend not to be motivated to do them well.

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