What Government Can and Should Learn From Hacker Culture

It's not enough to just bring geeks into government—bureaucracies have to learn to encourage collaboration and flatten the hierarchy, too.
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The Bazaar of Athens, Edward Dodwell

South by Southwest isn’t generally associated with the federal government. But this year, between panels on “10 Things Your Band Can Do To Not Get Sued” and “Austin Breakfast Tacos: The food, people & history,” the festival will host “It’s Not About Tech: Hack the Bureaucracy.” The pitch: “Bringing geeks into government won’t make a difference if they can’t crack the code on bureaucracies.” Steering the panel is veteran government code-cracker Richard Boly, former head of the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy.*

That the State Department embraces technology should not come as news. The department’s “21st Century Statecraft” initiatives have been well covered in the press, and officials from the secretary down to the interns use social media. But the SXSW panel focuses on a far thornier issue than getting ambassadors on Twitter: how to foster a culture of innovation and openness in a bureaucracy built to resist change.

The term “bureaucracy” has few positive connotations. It’s been called the “death of all sound work,” (Einstein), the “giant power wielded by pygmies” (Balzac), the “slime” left behind when revolutions fade (Kafka), and a “symbol of hell” (C.S. Lewis). Though it isn’t America’s only bureaucracy, the federal government is probably its most infamous one. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows only 28 percent of Americans viewed the federal government favorably in 2012, its lowest rating since the poll began in 1997. The study didn’t delve into why, but perhaps part of the answer is the perception of federal agencies as bloated, ineffective bureaucracies that stifle creativity.  

But there’s hope government can change this. The software industry can show us how. A little more than 20 years ago, Linux triggered a paradigm shift in programming, from hierarchy and restriction to collaboration and openness. It gave rise to practices that now seem commonplace, like cloud computing and crowdsourcing. But most importantly, it transformed the culture of programming. From a field primarily focused on producing products, tech development became what IT pioneer Tim O’Reilly called a whole new field of "scientific and economic inquiry." If that formerly stratified world could transform how it did business, maybe government can as well.

Before Linux, the software industry looked very different. As tech advocate Eric Raymond wrote in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, proprietary software firms used to resemble the grand churches of old; those in charge cloistered from the common folk, their discussions secret, decision-making a top-down, fixed-route operation. With open source, development came to resemble a "great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches," with many contributors working collaboratively. In the bazaar model, what matters is not rank but who finds the answer. The benefits of the approach are summed up in the aphorism, "With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." In other words, the more eyes on a problem, the better the odds are of finding the root cause.

At first, many companies rejected open source. As recently as 2001, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called Linux a "cancer" on the programming industry. But in two short decades, the model went mainstream, with corporations and government agencies, including the White House, now operating on open-source platforms. Eleven years after the "cancer" comment, Ballmer publicly embraced Linux. IBM declared last year that open source models "stand(s) ahead of their closed source counterparts" in just about every significant way.

Can the open-source model work for federal government? Not in every way—for security purposes, the government’s inner workings will never be completely open to the public. Even in the inner workings of government, fears of triggering the next Wikileaks or Snowden scandal may scare officials away from being more open with one another. While not every area of government can be more open, there are a few areas ripe for change.

Perhaps the most glaring need for an open-source approach is in information sharing. Today, among and within several federal agencies, a culture of reflexive and unnecessary information withholding prevails. This knee-jerk secrecy can backfire with fatal consequences, as seen in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, the 9/11 attacks, and the Boston Marathon bombings. What’s most troubling is that decades after the dangers of information-sharing were identified, the problem persists.

What’s preventing reform? The answer starts with the government’s hierarchical structure—though an information-is-power mentality and “need to know” Cold War-era culture contribute too. To improve the practice of information sharing, government needs to change the structure of information sharing. Specifically, it needs to flatten the hierarchy.

Former Obama Administration regulation czar Cass Sunstein’s “nudge” approach shows how this could work. In his book Simpler: The Future of Government, he describes how making even small changes to an environment can affect significant changes in behavior. While Sunstein focuses on regulations, the broader lesson is clear: Change the environment to encourage better behavior and people tend to exhibit better behavior. Without such strict adherence to the many tiers of the hierarchy, those working within it could be nudged towards, rather than fight to, share information.

One example of where this worked is in with the State Department’s annual Religious Engagement Report (RER). In 2011, the office in charge of the RER decided that instead of having every embassy submit their data via email, they would post it on a secure wiki. On the surface, this was a decision to change an information-sharing procedure. But it also changed the information-sharing culture. Instead of sharing information only along the supervisor-subordinate axis, it created a norm of sharing laterally, among colleagues.

Another advantage to flattening information-sharing hierarchies is that it reduces the risk of creating “single points of failure,” to quote technology scholar Beth Noveck. The massive amounts of data now available to us may need massive amounts of eyeballs in order to spot patterns of problems—small pools of supervisors atop the hierarchy cannot be expected to shoulder those burdens alone. And while having the right tech tools to share information is part of the solution—as the wiki made it possible for the RER—it’s not enough. Leadership must also create a culture that nudges their staff to use these tools, even if that means relinquishing a degree of their own power.

Finally, a more open work culture would help connect interested parties across government to let them share the hard work of bringing new ideas to fruition. Government is filled with examples of interesting new projects that stall in their infancy. Creating a large pool of collaborators dedicated to a project increases the likelihood that when one torchbearer burns out, others in the agency will pick up for them.

When Linus Torvalds released Linux, it was considered, in Raymond’s words, “subversive” and “a distinct shock.” Could the federal government withstand such a shock?

Evidence suggests it can—and the transformation is already happening in small ways. One of the winners of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovations in Government award is State’s Consular Team India (CTI), which won for joining their embassy and four consular posts—each of which used to have its own distinct set of procedures-into a single, more effective unit who could deliver standardized services. As CTI describes it, “this is no top-down bureaucracy” but shares “a common base of information and shared responsibilities.” They flattened the hierarchy, and not only lived, but thrived.

The many eyeballs approach has already proved successful too. In 2001, the Department of Veterans Affairs introduced a confidential, non-punitive reporting system to track preventable medical errors, errors which account for more deaths annually than motor vehicle accidents, breast cancer, or AIDS. Less than two years after launch, reporting of close calls increased 900-fold. By giving the many eyeballs within the agency a safe place to speak up using this system, lives will be saved.

While government will continue to operate in the cathedral model for some time, the fact that some hardy units have created a culture that fosters innovation and openness proves change is possible and already underway. Dismantling the cathedral will take a lot more than a SXSW panel, but such efforts make a dent in the edifice. The government will be better for it.

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* Disclaimer: I used to work for this office but am not associated with the panel. I still work for the State Department but the views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of either it or the U.S. government.

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Alexis Wichowski is an analyst at the Department of State and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. 

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