In March 2013, Michael Fallon was appointed as an energy minister in the UK government, on top of his existing job as a business minister. On the very first day of this arrangement, “Business Fallon” was asked to write a formal letter to “Energy Fallon”, asking for a particular change in policy. He then wrote back, telling himself to get lost.
On the face of it, there are few areas of our lives as ripe for innovation - for disruption - as government. Whichever state you live in, the machinery of public administration is encrusted by old-fashioned and outmoded practices - such as the British habit of conducting state affairs by writing formal letters between departments.
In terms of the delivery of public services alone, it is easy to envisage how technology could make things not just more efficient but also more responsive, allowing citizens to take control of their health or education. It would also be many orders of magnitude cheaper: a study by the British think tank Policy Exchange found that switching its focus to digital transactions could save the UK approximately £24 billion a year.
"Few areas are changing more slowly"
Yet at the same time, there are few areas where things seem to be changing more slowly - or at least where people are more dissatisfied with the pace of change. My new book, The Great Acceleration, explores how technology is speeding up our lives and our society. And one of my main findings was that, even as everything else speeds up, politics and government appears to be getting left behind.
Part of the explanation is that technology is a problem as well as a solution. “There’s a lot of technological triumphalism about how [the internet] can be used to improve democracy,” says the columnist and former White House speechwriter David Frum. “But in the end what seems to have happened is that it’s empowered angry and highly motivated minorities, and empowered them to slow down the system. Getting things done seems to go slower and slower every decade. How long does it take to build a highway? How long does it take to build a bridge? How long does it take to get a presidential nominee through the Senate?”
The result is what Francis Fukuyama has labelled a “vetocracy”, in which it is much easier to stop things than start them. Even the admirable devotion to increasing official transparency has sometimes been counter-productive - “like creating a big Amazon rating system for government that only allows one- or two-star ratings”, according to Archon Fung of the Kennedy School of Government.
Another problem, which it is impossible to overestimate the extent of, is the pressure of the accelerated news agenda. Put simply, those in government often lack the time to think - to take time to chew through problems and come up with policies rather than being forced to respond to the latest gyrations of the 24-hour media cycle.
How can you understand tech if you never book an Uber?
Yet there are other, more subtle dangers too. Put simply, politicians often do not actually understand the country they are governing - because their use of technology, once they get into power, tends to remain static, even as the world outside government’s races ahead. It is easy to make speeches about the power of disruption and the virtues of start-ups; but when you are not arranging your own Amazon deliveries or Uber pick-ups, the impact can be blunted.
So how can government deal with all these pressures - with the challenges and opportunities of acceleration? In a strange way, it is the very fact that government’s problems are so significant that makes the potential benefits so vast. It may be impossible to “fix government” in some sweeping, revolutionary fashion - but there is a great deal that can be done to bring the state closer to the citizen. Countries around the world are overhauling their bureaucracies by placing a focus on digital delivery strategies that can take things that used to cost millions and do them for tens of thousands. The database for the Indian government’s ID card system was built by a team of just 80 people.
From small problems to big challenges
Above all, government needs to be humbler - and smarter. It needs to stop getting bogged down in solving small problems and start thinking about the big ones: the challenges of automation, of productivity, of how to prepare citizens for the titanic technology-driven changes that are sweeping across our society (and prepare for the backlash they often produce).
In some ways, indeed, acceleration can be a blessing for governments. When new reforms are introduced - smoking bans, say, or carbon taxes - voters and activists are often outraged. But research by Elke Weber at Columbia University has found that within six or nine months of such measures being introduced, voters had accustomed themselves to the status quo: in an age of shorter attention spans, today’s crisis is tomorrow’s dim and distant memory.
The consequence of living in an age of acceleration is that things change more quickly - and go wrong more quickly. There is more fragility, and uncertainty, and turmoil. But there is also more opportunity, more energy and ultimately more progress. For governments, who already feel themselves struggling to keep up, this process raises all kinds of urgent and perhaps even existential questions about how they best serve their citizens. For all our sakes, they need to get the answers right.
This essay is drawn from The Great Acceleration (Bloomsbury)