1994 Council On Ideas
Position Statement

1994 Council on Ideas Members:
Garrett Epps
Frank Gehry
Arno Penzias

Direct access to information (a phenomenon that has already transformed factories and industrial production) is now transforming information work -- which includes art, literature, science, communications, finance, law, education and management. To keep up with the needs of a changing world, information work must transform itself so as to deal with an explosion of complexity. But while the marketplace is now streamlining information work in the private sector -- shifting it from its traditional inward-looking focus toward a more output-oriented focus -- no comparable mechanism is yet in place for many areas of government. Therefore much of government no longer maintains its side of the social contract with its citizens. The most likely result of such failure appears to be social collapse. This has already happened in the East and, if government fails to address this problem, we in the West will soon follow the East.

The failure of government we describe is not the failure of individuals. It is common to scold government employees as "Bureaucrats". But the failures of government, by and large, are not failures at the individual level. Government employees are not the enemy; the enemy is government's failure to manage complexity. In other words, the enemy is bureaucracy rather than bureaucrats.

If we do not revitalize our government, there is a serious possibility that society will simply decide to do without the things government uniquely can provide -- functions that build a sense of community and a vision of the common good. If government proves unable to fulfill these functions, crucial decisions will be made on the basis of economic or political power alone, leaving the majority of people without any emotional or political stake in the decisions or the society that result. A government system can succeed only if it makes stakeholders of all its citizens. The large number of Americans who don't vote -- and the alienation and confusion of many of those who do -- are signs that our system is on the road to failure.

Stating the problem is easier than prescribing a cure. But study of successful public and private bureaucracies offers some general guides to making complex structures more effective. To begin with, mere cutting or capping of funding is generally counterproductive because it puts organizations -- and those who run them -- into a defensive mode that actually blocks the innovation needed to succeed.

Successful bureaucratic reforms seem to have four common elements:

  1. a coherent mandate resulting from a deliberate decision-making process;
  2. output orientation -- a clear commitment toward an articulated function (rather than an isolated goal) that is accepted by the internal and external stakeholders;
  3. an adequate incentive structure that permits conscientious members of the organization to harmonize their own self-interest with the mission of the organization; and
  4. a market orientation driven by value as determined by the user.

Output orientation is crucially different from mere sequential goal-setting (such as, for example, defining a drug policy as a "War on Drugs" that has its objective total "victory" over the drug problem). Output orientation is holistic; it is a function of creativity and right brain cognition as well as of quantitative or sequential thinking. Indeed, it may be constructive to stop the pretense that logic guides or should guide all public decision-making.

What is needed is a system that gauges success by measurable, customer-defined outputs (which are not necessarily, or even usually, the most easily quantified measures of output). Such a gauge is impossible without a public dialogue on the outputs of government. To that end, it is crucial that Americans cease to see government and politics as a spectator sport. Politics, which should be about governance, is increasingly about winning or losing. It is a kind of national circus, which distracts public attention from our society's mounting failure to provide bread for all its citizens. Politics in our system should be a deliberative process -- a national dialogue that seeks consensus and focuses on resolving differences on the basis of principle rather than power. Such a national dialogue would frame the coherent decision-making process needed to inform the operational reforms suggested above.