2012 is the 200th anniversary of the peak of the Luddite movement in Britain. I think it’s time everyone figured out that we’re now in the early stages of what can be seen as the biggest manifestation of Luddite thinking in world history. No, it’s not as dramatic as British laborers trashing factories to protest mechanization. But there is a reason the information technology productivity revolution that has made the U.S. private sector so vastly more efficient the past two decades has largely bypassed the public sector. It’s not just because government is slow to adapt. I think eventually it will be realized that a crucial factor was that union types realized before the rest of us that the I.T. revolution could wipe out millions of bureaucratic jobs at the local, state and federal level.
That this is how people in Sacramento thought first occurred to me a decade ago. That’s when the late Assemblyman Keith Richman came up with a plan that the Republican physician thought would quickly win support from Democratic lawmakers: sharply increasing the number of poor kids taking advantage of free state- and federal-funded medical services by allowing parents to sign them up online. Richman told me the plan was killed because of union concerns that it would cost too many clerks their jobs in county welfare offices.
What brought this to mind again was the weekend story about growing griping over using state education grants for online colleges. Now I have no doubts there are legit concerns in this matter. Some online colleges are shabby operations. But critics of online education often ignore its success stories and great promise in favor of a formula of criticism that offers cursory praise and then devalues praise for online learning from students and from administrators and depicts it as an assault on the noble goals of a liberal education (not liberal in the political sense, but in the liberal arts sense).
Now especially in K-8 classes, a case can be made that school serves a crucial role in socialization. But by and large, we’re not seeing this narrow argument. Instead, we’re seeing the narrative that I call the alchemy argument — something special happens when kids and teachers gather in a central location. Oh, bunk.
As for regular government bureaucracy, there’s no fig leaf akin to the alchemy argument. To borrow a bit from what I wrote a few years ago on my late lamented SDUT blog, in the private sector, it’s routine for employees to become more productive when pressured or given incentives to do so. When the recent economic downturn was at its worst, employers demanded workers do more with less. The result: In the second and third quarters of 2009, the U.S. government’s business productivity growth gauge went up at an annualized rate of 8.2 percent rate – a stunning gain that economists said was the biggest such surge coming out of a recession in nearly 50 years. How did they do it? To a considerable degree through efficiencies made possible by information technology — efficiencies ignored by just about every government body besides the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.
This is why the McKinsey consulting group says “the opportunity to improve government productivity is huge … [with] three classic management tools . . . organizational redesign, strategic procurement and operational redesign.”
And the key to that redesign is to stop building off the presumption that we need to have workers gather in the same building to handle routine tasks, and to require that consumers of government services go to these buildings, too.
I once had to go to the Poway DMV to get a copy of a vehicle registration that I had lost because it was the only local DMV that had an appointment slot available within two weeks. Why? Why? Why? For God’s sake, in an era in which you can design your next car and do a zillion other things on the Internet, why do you ever have to drive to a government office anywhere to fill out a permit or pick up a form?
Where are the virtual offices? Where are the MBA consultants who come in and spot ineffeciences and outline changes that seem obvious in retrospect? Why don’t we see the IT revolution depopulate government bureaucracies the same way it wiped out travel agencies?
The McKinsey report I cited is at least seven or eight years old. Who knows how much more could be done with fewer government workers now as the IT revolution continues and picks up steam? I wish we could find out.
Especially with governments being so broke at so many levels, it’s time this revolution finally thinned out a government so bloated it makes the guy in the final scene of “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” seem like a greyhound.
Anti-Luddites of the world, unite! Believe it or not, the forces of history are on our side.