Unlike Polaroid and other companies, government agencies don't have to adapt or die: They just never go away. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Unlike Polaroid and other companies, government agencies don't have to adapt or die: They just never go away. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

My colleague Ezra Klein has an excellent article in Bloomberg Businessweek about technology in government and why it has so many problems. He contrasts the performance of the Obamacare websites with what’s going on at one particular agency:

If Obama still intends to make the voice of usability -- which is to say, the voice of the voter -- a vital feature of the way government operates, he needs to fight a battle that animated him in 2008 but was clearly lost by 2013.

To start, the president could study the example of how the British government used the initial failure of its electronic medical records system as a catalyst for broader change. But he doesn’t even have to look that far. The Affordable Care Act, after all, isn’t the only product his administration has launched. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), created by the Dodd-Frank financial reform act of 2010, has won wide plaudits for its remarkable, user-friendly deployment of technology. Merici Vinton, who recruited most of the original technology and digital team and oversaw the creation of consumerfinance.gov -- her agency’s version of healthcare.gov -- outlined three principles for making technology work in government:

1. Never build a website that’s too big to fail; instead, start small.

2. Do open-source when possible, preferably always.

3. Have in-house strategy, design, and tech.

Each of these principles sounds straightforward. They’re the kinds of things most private-sector technology companies adhere to by default. But they’re all terrifically hard to do inside the federal bureaucracy. In-house design and tech require the government to recruit high-priced technology talent to perform tasks that it long ago outsourced to contractors -- and recruiting that kind of talent requires creating systems and a culture attractive to top technologists. Open-source and small-enough-to-fail are also hard sells. Both require a comfort with failure and experimentation that the federal government isn’t exactly known for.

The CFPB overcame this risk aversion because it was a new agency. “We were told ‘no’ to just about everything we wanted to do,” Vinton says. “A very real part of your job is hearing ‘no’ as ‘maybe,’ and working through the real or perceived concerns, getting the lawyers on your side. And keep fighting.” That’s a bigger challenge in an entrenched bureaucracy, like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, where the IT department is thick with 20-year veterans. Vinton notes that the CFPB benefited from Congress’s only mentioning the word “website” once in its statute. The ACA mentions it 118 times -- which in effect handed control of the site’s development to lawyers, not engineers. “The way Congress looks at software is that there are these sites that do these amazing things, and we should do that, too,” says [software developer Fred] Trotter. “They don’t realize that a tremendous amount of invention has gone on at these scaled websites to handle these processes.”

I think this is absolutely right, but it’s for exactly that reason that I think the quest to create an "iPod presidency” was always doomed.

The process that Ezra describes -- the sclerotic process by which bureaucracy and encroaching risk aversion come to block off the arteries of innovation -- is the natural aging process of an organization. It’s why companies like Hewlett-Packard Co. and Xerox Corp. and International Business Machines Corp., which were once radical disruptors, now seem like slow-moving supertankers: hard to capsize but not exactly nimble. You can see the process happening now at firms like Microsoft Corp., and even Apple Inc. And in a decade or so, you’ll see it happening at Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. It’s an inevitable part of the process of aging.

Old organizations definitionally have a lot of longtime stakeholders. And in a sort of ecological process, those stakeholders have been selected for a certain amount of fitness for their environment, which is to say that they are good at doing things the way they have always been done, and they like things the way they are. They are averse to any sort of big change, and they will fight you with every tool at their disposal, from open warfare to passive-aggressively going through the motions on everything you ask them to do. That’s why organizations in crisis frequently need to fire the majority of their staffs to turn things around -- and, more than once, an organization that has done so has found that it’s still stuck with the same corporate culture that wasn’t working before. As sociologist Gabriel Rossman told me:

“If new entrants assimilate to whatever is the majority at the time they enter, and if new entrants trickle in slowly, then the founding culture can persist over time, even if over the long run they make up a tiny minority.” This is why Americans speak English even though more of us are ethnically German or Yoruba. In linguistics and sociology, it’s known as the “founder effect.” In corporations, it’s known as “how we’ve always done things.”

The CFPB is doing a good thing by taking a radical approach. But it can only do that because it’s a brand-new agency. In 25 years, if the CFPB is still around, I can virtually guarantee that it will have all the turf wars, bureaucratic inertia and so forth that has hobbled the Department of Health and Human Services. Not because government agencies are somehow especially awful, but because every organization calcifies over time.

Of course, there is one key difference with government: It doesn’t go away. When a Polaroid Corp. or an Eastman Kodak Co. runs out of creative steam, it fails, and downsizes, and gets replaced by a different company. HHS, on the other hand, is not going to get its job taken over by a lean upstart. Government structure is not quite written in stone -- over the last 10 years, we’ve gotten the Department of Homeland Security and the CFPB. But note that it took the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, to make these things happen. And at that, Homeland Security simply replicates much of the old bureaucratic structure of the agencies that were put together under its umbrella.

America thinks of itself as being one of the youngest nations in the world. But as far as governments go, we’re one of the oldest: We’ve been operating continuously under the same constitution for more than 200 years now. A certain amount of what Jonathan Rauch has dubbed “demosclerosis” was inevitable. And it’s now so far advanced that I doubt we’ll ever have an iPod presidency . . . at least not until an iPod is something that your grandmother used to listen to while she was dancing the Watusi.