Are we on a cycle in which everything government does happens slower and slower?
Let’s look at a field in which things aren’t slowing but speeding up: software. The people making Web sites and apps are innovating at a frenetic pace. In recent years, a new management philosophy called “lean startups” has taken hold. One of the basic principles, according to guru Eric Ries, is to build something quickly, measure how well it works and improve it. The faster you run through the “build-measure-learn” cycle, the better.
Now, government can’t do this with, say, a bridge. You can’t just throw up a bridge, see if it works, then put up a better bridge. It has to work right the first time. But there are a lot of ways government programs could work like lean startups. Capital Bikeshare, for instance, has stations that are easy to move. All it takes is appropriate space and enough sun to power the solar panels. If one location isn’t working well, officials could try another.
We can do this with streets as well. After a pedestrian was killed at the intersection of 15th and W streets and Florida and New Hampshire avenues NW, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) installed temporary curbs and bollards to prevent drivers from taking turns too quickly. It has a nice long-term design for the intersection in the works, but for the years in between, we still get a safer, if slightly ugly, intersection.
Of course, experimentation isn’t new to many areas of government. The police try out crime-fighting techniques and look at whether the crime rate goes down. Educators test better ways to teach. Even capital projects, such as in transportation, have long involved pilot programs designed to test an innovation.
Classically, however, these pilots could last for years or even drag on indefinitely; the District has numerous parking “pilots” that never really conclude and generate no useful data about whether they are helping or hurting. Lean startups, in contrast, demand trying something fast, measuring its success quickly, and learning and revising fast.
Often the obstacles to quick government innovation are political and social. Bureaucratic processes, and expectations from the public and elected officials, slow things down.
That’s because trying things means, inevitably, that sometimes they will fail. And nobody likes to see money wasted, least of all public money. Residents, and reporters, understandably recoil at any sign that funds might have been squandered on a project that turned out to not be a good idea. But it’s actually more fiscally responsible to try a lot of cheap ideas than to spend years on staff and consultants to pick a single idea, which still might not work out; what’s most important is to make the attempt quickly and cheaply (“fail fast,” as the lingo in the tech world goes). That’s one reason small tech startups, which might only have the capital needed to operate for a short time, are the biggest adherents of this approach.