Vincent Chuang
May 29, 2017 · 4 min read

Knocking Down Fences Instead of Building Better Ones



In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

-“The Thing”, G.K. Chesterton, 1929

Disrupt.

Move fast and break things.[1]

Fail fast, fail often.

Silicon Valley lore is built on stories of fast and dramatic change. The consummate outsider with little experience in the field appears out of nowhere with big ideas and bigger technology to completely remake an industry for the better.

Many times, it works. But sometimes it doesn’t. It turns out changing government is something that frequently falls into the second group.

Grand plans for improving government often fail because of two reasons.[2] First, the institution has a long memory. Second, alienating the institution and those that work within it.

Governments have been around for a long time. They are imbued with years of institutional knowledge, procedure, and actions. Every government process and output is the result of decades of citizen complaints, lobbying, city-wide initiatives, special elections, referendums, protests, whim and who-knows-what-else layered on top of each other.

Over a thirty-year period, a fence might have been erected for reason A, repainted for reason B, torn down and rebuilt three feet higher for reason C, named for reason D, and had a ditch dug around it for reason E. For some of these reasons, keeping the fence might still be important. For others, not so much. Either way it can be hard to tell which reasons are still valid.

Jumping in with a plan to tear down the fence and build a sleeker looking one, or finding a way to make an eleven step process more efficient by removing ten steps, or making “all the documents public” might be great from an outsider’s perspective. But it also might be missing the point altogether. And not understanding the long history of why things are the way they are is a great way to have governments ignore you when you propose a new idea.

Governments are also not monoliths. They are composed of individuals that actually have to do the work. Any game changing idea heaped onto government is ultimately implemented by and affects individual civil servants.

This is why many implementations of “open government” find it so difficult to get any traction. They add more work to the already overworked and often don’t provide solutions, technological or otherwise, to ease the burden. They force people to change their workflows without providing anything of value in return for the change.

Here’s the thing, governments as institutions don’t necessarily need to be more efficient or more technology forward. There is no competitive landscape for governments. Nonetheless, many hope to improve. In order to best make improvement possible, we should remember to keep these things in mind.

Silicon Valley has another saying: “Talk to your users”. This is the one startups in the government sector should focus on. Don’t tear down that fence until you know why it’s there. And if you want to tear it down, help out those who have to do the actual work.

[1] https://xkcd.com/1428/

[2] This list is not exhaustive. There are many things that make governments a different from a business or a family or an individual. And this is also not to say that government can’t learn things from the private sector or Silicon Valley. Because governments can and should.