Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

March 24, 2008

Why Can’t Government Deal In Cyberspace?

by Brad Warbiany

As a member of the internet generation, I do more things online these days than offline. In the world of commerce, there are a host of simple and useful tools, created by companies, that make it very easy for me to accomplish what I want to accomplish. Need a map? Google. Need information on where to go for dinner & drinks, and then what entertainment to take my wife to celebrate special occasions? Citysearch, ticketmaster, etc. Hotels, airfare, and vacations? A host of sites provide me with information, pricing, and simple booking. I can communicate with fellow homebrewers or fellow Boilermakers on a number of message boards. Buying and selling of goods and services can be done on a host of sites (my favorite being craigslist). Even banking, a form of commerce as old as money, is available and convenient online. I can’t remember the last time I actually wrote a check, stuck it in an envelope, added a stamp, and sent it off to pay my bills.

But when it comes to making things easier for “consumers”, one area of our society lags far, far behind: the government. Outside of a few bright spots, government-service web sites are largely cumbersome and useless. Why? Well, the economist points us at the usual suspects: lack of competition, lack of accountability, and a tendency to spend money without actually ensuring the results are achieved.

Governments have few direct rivals. Amazon.com must outdo other online booksellers to win readers’ money. Google must beat Yahoo!. Unless every inch of such companies’ websites offers stellar clarity and convenience, customers go elsewhere. But if your country’s tax-collection online offering is slow, clunky or just plain dull, then tough. When Britain’s Inland Revenue website crashed on January 31st—the busiest day of its year—the authorities grudgingly gave taxpayers one day’s grace before imposing penalties. They did not offer the chance to pay tax in Sweden instead.

But shame and beauty contests are still weak forces in the public sector. Failure in bureaucracy means not bankruptcy but writing self-justifying memos, and at worst a transfer elsewhere. Bureaucrats plead that just a bit more time and money will fix the clunky monsters they have created. That kind of thinking has led to the botched computerisation in Britain’s National Health Service, where billions of pounds and millions of precious hours are spent on a system that at best will be substandard and at worst dangerously leaky with patients’ private medical data.

That reflects another problem. In the private sector, tight budgets for information technology spark innovation. But bureaucrats are suckers for overpriced, overpromised and overengineered systems. The contrast is all the sharper given some of the successes shown by those using open-source software: the District of Columbia, for example, has junked its servers and proprietary software in favour of the standard package of applications offered and hosted by Google.

Not that such an indictment of the system will surprise any regular readers of this web site, of course. Systems don’t work when the incentives don’t force them to work, and the political incentive to operate efficiently simply doesn’t exist. I would, of course, add one additional point. I added emphasis to the article’s point on bureaucrats’ use of overpriced, overpromised, and overengineered systems. In addition, it’s quite often that these systems are not chosen for their technical fit in the required application, but are chosen because of who is supplying the system, and what politicians they have lobbied. Or, as is common in the military, the politically-correct need to source products from “small disadvantaged businesses” leads to perverse incentives, where either sub-optimal solutions are chosen, or the implemented solution has needless overhead in the cost because it must be purchased through a qualifying distributor.

As is usually the case with government, it’s not that incompetence or malfeasance is the direct cause of the failure of a system. It’s that the system is not designed to operate in the way we expect it to. Our elected officials and the bureaucrats they appoint are not supermen. In fact, those who believe the internet is a series of tubes simply shouldn’t be expected to implement sound e-government policies.

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