Can We Really Run The Government As A Business?

Donald Trump has made headlines this week after tapping his son-in-law Jared Kushner to run an internal SWAT Team dedicating to fixing government by harvesting ideas from the business world. The new office, titled The White House Office of American Innovation, aims to add efficiency to a bureaucratic government — treating its citizens as the “customers” of a company.

On the outside, it sounds enticing — sure with a buzzword like “innovation” and a promise to attract top talents and minds, how can this go wrong?

Trump isn’t the first businessmen to run for office and campaign on business acumen. Wendell Wilkie, Herbert Hoover, and famously, Ross Perot, all with little experience in politics and diplomacy before seeking the Presidency, won their admiration through respect for their business minds.

It first begs the question — why don’t more brilliant business minds run for office if there is such a perceived heavy correlation between business stalwarts and successful Presidents?

As we’ve learned from the past few years, government positions can be often limiting for people with big dreams and visions. It’s important for someone in an entrepreneurial environment to be comfortable with failure and iteration. The President often has multiple hoops to jump through if he wants to propose a radical idea. Even with executive orders, which allow a very small window of policy change, anything the President does can be be checked, assessed, and analyzed against the federal courts and congress.

Take an Elon Musk or Larry Page — When Elon Musk or Larry Page have new business developments, they have a lot of freedom to put these ideas into action. They have full control, pending shareholder and board consent, on how money is spent, organization is structured and time is invested. The Executive Branch of our government operates on a balance of powers with almost every action of the President put under scrutiny.

The President must work with the Legislative branch to get virtually anything done and, in these days, this is largely frustrating due to a bipartisan divide. He doesn’t have his own money to work with and he certainly can’t spend at his discretionary desire from the federal budget. This certainly limits the progress and freedom of a President.

Elon Musk and Larry Page can’t simply fire anyone who under performs, disagrees or shuts down their ideas if they were Presidents as the President has no authority to fire elected representatives, be they Republican or Democrat. Most of these areas in government require a process, including impeachment, that requires cooperation with congress. People who run large companies have spent so much of their time being surrounded by “Yes”, they tend to forget the necessity of collaboration.

On top of that, Elon Musk and Larry Page have a specialty in their respective fields. While I’m sure they both have dealt with policy significantly, it doesn’t make them experts on foreign affairs, economic growth, or the litany of other issues a President is required to be knowledge about. As we learned from one noble neurosurgeon and real estate tycoon this election cycle, expertise doesn’t always transfer.

So regardless of how lavish Trump’s handpicked “Office of Innovation” looks, simply “using innovation to change the government” seems like an audacious task. While I have little ground to advise Mr. Kushner, here is my advice for what an Office of Innovation can focus on:

  • User Experience: Figure out which agencies are most reviled by citizens. Create user stories on people who are frustrated by the length of the DMV, people who have to wait months for food stamps, people who are still waiting to hear back about their Visa. Tap into the Presidential Innovation Fellows and Office of the Chief Technology Officers down to the states — Create empirical examples and show people that you are listening to them by actively working with these agencies from the inside to create the change people want. Instead of allowing a President to order media blackouts on social media pages, find a way to make the social media pages more robust and conducive to the people they are supposed to inform.
  • Destigmatize Bureaucracy: In many instances, bureaucracy is essentially a straw man complaint for anyone who doesn’t like how things are going. I once ran into a gentleman at a gas station in Kentucky who was voting for Donald Trump — primarily because he wanted to break Washington. His reasoning? He had a custody trial that had been going on for a few months and was fed up with what he felt like was an archaic and apathetic government. Of course, this is a local government issue — perhaps even a state government issue. It should seem like “breaking Washington” is the answer. But as we know, the modern state cannot exist without large bureaucratic agencies to implement its programs. Look at the impact of social security and environmental protection — a testament to large agencies that created sweeping reform as a result of, not in spite of, their bureaucracy. It’s easy to create a binary depending on your political party — i.e. small government is good and big government is bad if you’re a conservative. Instead, innovation can focus on how we can use marketing and messaging to lessen the friction of partisan beliefs in bad government.
  • Don’t Let Execution Replace Empathy: Yes, we get that technocrats and entrepreneurs are “fiscally smart” and focused on rolling up their sleeves to get progress out the door. If we’ve learned from any mistakes this year, it’s that trying to get something out the door in 18 days because you wanted to “say you did” is easy. In an application environment, product updates can be executed on a daily basis. What’s harder in the government is pushing out a product where lives and income is at stake. Your customer base of 320 million users could effectively die if you simply push something out of the door without proper iteration. If your product flops, you lose a bit of revenue. If your new government innovation fails miserably, real livelihoods are at stake. Bringing in new minds should be complemented by minds that have actual empathy and consider human lives in every decision — not minds that vacillate between a genuine desire to change the world versus a simplistic desire to raise a flag in false accomplishment. In a country overseen by a Trump, I doubt “empathy training” is high on any to-do list — but the backlash coming from an absence of empathy will undoubtedly overshadow even a sliver of progress.

While I have my own ideas for how we should see innovation in a government and do not fully trust Trump shares even a modicum of the same vision, it brings an important argument to the forefront: how much should we really mix business with government?

What we need is more compassion, compromise, and critical thought in policy — how much does this magic wand solution of “business” help more than hurt?

Kushaan is an IBM Consultant based out of Washington D.C. His interests are rooted in strategy consulting, entrepreneurship, social media, and the intersection of technology with social impact. He enjoys blogging about life, career insights, social technology, and hacking the corporate environment. If you liked this post, follow him on twitter: @kushaanshah or click “Follow” at the top for more posts on Linkedin.