Book Club: Recoding America – Why Government is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

If you’ve ever muttered under your breath about the inefficiency/waste/frustration/etc of government at all levels, you have to read Recoding America – Why Government is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, by Jennifer Pahlka. I don’t think I’ve ever dogeared as many pages in a book. While the author explores governments’ challenges through technology, it’s clear that the problems are not limited to, or even about, technology. As candidates are happy to remind us, governments don’t work like private enterprises or households. They have different goals, so that makes sense.

‘Doing what you’re told even if you know it won’t work is not leadership. “If they ask us to build a concrete boat, we’ll build a concrete boat,” one government technology leader told me. “Because that way, when it goes wrong, it’s not our fault.”’

What doesn’t make sense is how governments make decisions and implement policies. She describes how well-intended policies, implemented by well-intended people don’t work. Both Conservatives and Liberals are called out. Just a few health-related examples include details of healthcare.gov’s implementation, the COVID-19 response, Medicaid applications and enrollment, MACRA, and a Facebook for Doctors that, mercifully, never happened.

Politicians get elected by passing big new laws and policies to solve big new problems. But administrators move up by following detailed rules and keeping the status quo train running on time – not by taking risks. No one is rewarded for “simplifying and rationalizing the gargantuan maze of laws, policies, and regulations that govern service delivery.” In fact, you can get scorched for following common sense rather than the rules.