Smart Government

Centuries of governing, with attempts consistently made to make government work, from party to party, have fallen relatively short in the eyes of most Americans. Bureaucracy and the unending pursuit of political points undermines the greater good, with folks in Congress seeking not to improve the lives of Americans, but their reelection chances. Government focuses not on the outcome, but the optics of the decision or program itself.

The problem exists on both sides of the aisle. Democrats throw money at problems, expecting that in itself to remedy issues. They lack the data and evidence that they are getting the most out of each dollar, and actually changing lives. Yet they continue to funnel funds into programs that either don’t work, or that they don’t know whether or not they work.

With the annual deficit continuing to pile onto our accumulated debt, which now exceeds $20 trillion, the Democrats tend to be too compulsory. They, however, give it a go, crafting ambitious plans to combat certain pressing issues. There is an endless stream of ideas, some of which aren’t good, but that are working to remedy the problem.

The Republicans, meanwhile, work on the opposite end of the spectrum. The self-proclaimed “fiscal conservatives” live up to the name, cutting as much as they possibly can, as they believe smaller government and a better government are interchangeable. They use data to an inappropriate extent, cutting programs such as “Meals on Wheels” and certain after-school programs due to their perceived ineffectiveness.

The comment by White House Budget Chief Mick Mulvaney about after-school programs was a perfect example. The $1.2 billion of federal funding these programs received was zeroed out by the Trump administration, and Mulvaney claimed it was due to the lack of evidence that students performed better. This was the reasoning behind the budget cut, and was chastised by the media. And rightfully so, as the comment turned out to be based on a false data set.

Republicans have consistently cut programs that they deem haven’t worked, but that hasn’t been based on actual evidence. The notion that we should cut programs that don’t work, even in highly sensitive areas, is a justifiable one. We should stop using federal funds as an end, for political points, rather than a means to an end.

In the business world, innovation is key. Adapting to the times, using technology to your advantage, and staying ahead of the curve is vital to maintaining your place atop the mountain. It isn’t just a desire, it’s a necessity. Government, meanwhile, can be viewed almost as an antithesis to the business world. Bureaucracy and red tape stifles innovation, and the ineffectiveness of Congress only exacerbates this issue.

The disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov was a prime example of government’s inability to provide services to the American people. Only 1% of people that visited the site could enroll, and wait times were incredibly long. The long-awaited health care bill started off with a resounding thud. The optics of this failure would maintain, undercutting the credibility of a bill that insured 20 million Americans and slowed down the rising rates of premiums.

The optics and rollout of certain programs are just as important as the program itself in some cases. Folks need to be informed about the options available to them, and the systems set up to offer the service must work, to reach the constituency in an effective way. Both parties have struggled with this to an extent, but the Democrats have certainly made strides.

It may not strike many that the Democrats are the ones who have begun to embrace efficient government, but it is certainly true. During his stint as Governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine worked to create a more streamlined government, offering vital services to citizens at a lower cost, while increasing transparency on what was actually going on in the state government. They created initiatives, such as the Productivity Investment Fund, to serve as essentially a government venture capital firm.

PIF was a resounding success, turning in a 4-to-1 return on investment, and pushing forward many initiatives that created the customer experience better. From the book Innovative State by Aneesh Chopra, the first Secretary of Technology in Virginia, and later the first Chief Technology Officer under President Obama, outlining some initiatives from the fund:

“We don’t need much more evidence that the PIF was serving its purpose, and yet the stories kept coming. In its first six years, and over the course of two gubernatorial administrations, one Democratic and one Republican, it would sponsor more than forty projects, and deploy more than $4 million, including savings that were reinvested into new enterprises. It would simplify the Medicaid application form for seniors. It would lower the permitting costs for mining companies. It would allow the tax department to scan millions of checks rather than the old way of getting them to the bank for deposit (via an expensive courier service), saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. It would save thousands more by switching the software in a K-12 school system from Microsoft to Google. It would give parents web access to quality rankings on preschools — since passing third-grade reading was a known precursor to later success, and earlier childhood education was critical for getting students ready to learn.”

If that seemed exhaustive and unnecessary, that’s because it was supposed to be. The idealism that government can run more efficiently, and serve “customers” more efficiently, isn’t a false hope. It’s been put into action, at all levels, for a very long time. It is bipartisan, with books such as Moneyball for Government, which was written by Democrats and Republicans alike. The book focuses on the use of data and evidence to fund projects that work, and try again on ones that don’t.

The previous three administrations made strides in cutting off the fat of government. Clinton appealed to left and right alike, championing and addressing many liberal ideas while also streamlining government to appease the right. Bush implemented technology to a large degree, creating a new level of transparency, and Obama ramped up investment in innovative new technologies, while also using money as a leveraging tool to spur private innovation.

The divide between left and right, especially in our generation, is hardly a unconquerable one. The desire for a smarter, more efficient government is one that all can agree to. President Clinton cut many departments and agencies deemed unnecessary, and by the end of his term cut the federal workforce by over 400,000 employees. Economically, the 90’s were a golden era. They proved that addressing our greatest social challenges, evening the playing field, while also being responsible economically are not mutually exclusive.

Ultimately, we must reflect on the state of the government. The Senate has changed the rules, on the heels of eight years of blind obstruction by the Republicans, and in the midst of a standstill in the highest institutions. The divide in our country is thrown around as a talking point of those looking to further divide and capitalize on it, and not to unite.

That can’t and won’t be our future. The way to bridge the gap between left and right is embracing the “smarter” government model. There has never been a better time for this, and the conditions will only improve. Technology can increase transparency, increase efficiency of services, and save billions of dollars. It can breed innovation, creating a synergy between the public and private sector that epitomizes the beauty of our great nation.

So I implore my fellow millennials, many of whom identify as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative,” to embrace the governmental approach that accomplishes that. I implore my fellow Democrats to join in the fight to cut into our deficit, while addressing issues such as racial inequality and climate change. I also implore those across the aisle, my Republican friends, to join the fight to streamline our government, to place our great nation back upon the mountaintop of innovation, while also having an economy that hums.

Pushing our society forward, with programs that work, while also having a balanced budget isn’t a utopian dream, it’s a reality. It’s within our reach. So let’s not bicker over the notion of big vs. small government. Rather, let us embrace smarter government, that works for all.