Rebooting 20th Century Government: New Software Needed

Be it Boston water mains or BP’s oil drilling platforms, it sure seems like our basic systems for fixing problems -- from arcane Senate rules to silo’ed federal agencies -- are no longer up to the task. 

No surprise then to see a great front page article the other day in the New York Times documenting the deep frustration of state and local leaders with the broken pipes of 20th Century government, the inefficiency of fragmented jurisdictions and the lack of positive outcomes on the economy.   This witches’ brew is made more bitter by state funding shortfalls and red ink as far as the eye can see.

So how do we fix the federal-state-local economic development pipeline to water the right beanfields, do more for less, and effectively engage the private sector to deliver job growth for everyday Americans?

While tempting, we can’t just be China for a day and “decide” to put in 42 high speed rail systems overnight – and simply ignore nasty “not in my backyard” local siting concerns and pesky Congressional “pay-as-you-go” rules that stall smart infrastructure investments

Nor can we just expect entrenched interests to graciously stand aside as we propose eliminating agencies and programs in a political flourish.  No offense to the heroic reformers in the Times piece who had all tried and failed to re-arrange government in dramatic new ways (eg, cutting Nebraska’s number of counties in half, eliminating 1,000 township boards in Indiana), but overcoming 20th Century government and creating new bottom-up innovation won’t succeed by re-arranging the hardware of government on a white board.

We need new thinking and collaborative software to effectively re-wire our economic circuitry.

In policy layman’s terms, a basic strategy to modernize federal-state-local systems would:

  • Enable bottom up business plans -- not big guvment.
  • Create “go-fast” job-creation centers across the country to accelerate the deployment of a new, public-private pipeline for economic development and help America leapfrog past obsolete and silo’ed 20th Century systems.
  • Charter, fund and deploy a new generation of “distributed finance institutions” (DFIs) to drive our economic transition and directly support small-scale business and sustainable infrastructure projects with less federal red-tape.
  • Engage trillions in untapped union and public pension fund assets through federal credit enhancements to drive deep job creation and small business investment long after the federal stimulus runs out.
  • Focus on manufacturing opportunities (which studies show indirectly creates more jobs in a community than service jobs) through new incentives for local in-sourcing of key supply chains.
  • End top-down decision-making by just a few officials in Washington DC and empower front-line regional leaders through performance- and outcome-based budgeting.
  • Enable local and state innovation through web 2.0 tools and technical assistance.  EDA’s site is a great step in that direction.

In the long run, we need to track which innovations and experiments are delivering the best results.  To lift up and scale the top approaches, we might consider adding one more commission to a growing list.  A Bottom Up Innovation Commission could identify the most promising reforms, implementation mechanisms and tough choices ahead for 21st century government, much like the successful base-closing commission.  One surprising co-chair to throw in the hopper: Tom Brokaw, whose surprising piece last year called for “cutting anachronistic and expensive local government structure that dates to horse-drawn wagons, family farms and small-town convenience.”  

Tom’s ready for the change.  Are we?