How to Fix the Government II: Experts

The Information Diet concludes around this theme: “Washington isn’t the land of vast, radical changes, it’s a battleship waiting to be nudged in the right direction. Let the legions of information-obese fight on the front lines, and join me in nudging the small nuts and bolts that hold the ship together.” This week, I’m writing a post a day talking about those nuts and bolts. I hope you’ll join the discussion.

Imagine that a Fortune 500 company comes to you and says: Reader, we recognize your expertise. We think you’re really good and smart at what you do. Would you mind coming and spending a day with us to figure out what we should do next?

If you’re any form of expert on anything, what you say next is: sure. My rate for day-long sessions is XYZ per hour. You send them a proposal. Whoever asked you manages to get your proposal through some kind of process. You show up, you spend the day brainstorming with them, and you’re then compensated for your time.

Nearly all large corporations do this for good reason: sometimes innovation comes from outside an organization. Sometimes its useful to try out something like GameStorming to shake things up. Other times it’s useful to bring in someone who knows a thing or two about sustainability to help you iron out your sustainability strategy.

Government needs experts too – more in the latter category than the former. If government wants to regulate the Internet, for instance, it’s necessary for government to bring someone in to help figure out the best way to do that. But government also needs operational experts – voices from the outside (read: constituency) that can tell them what to do that people want.

But because it’s actually very expensive for government to buy things, government asks the experts to come in for free. And sometimes they get them. If, for instance, someone has a book to sell, they’ll often come by in the hopes that people will buy their book. Most of the time a good expert will stop by for a meeting at the White House for their own ego. Who doesn’t want to say that the president “picked their brain” even if the person doing the picking is located in an office building three blocks away from the White House.

But eventually those experts have other commitments, and cannot afford to give away their product for free forever. And so those experts give way to another class of people willing to take that seat. These experts are called “lobbyists” and they’re able to afford “half-day brainstorming sessions” to government for free because they usually have a sponsor who pays them to do so and to represent their interests.

Now these sponsors are either non-profit organizations and advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association or the Sunlight Foundation, or they’re corporations themselves. So when the department of Treasury has a “brainstorming session on the Future of FOIA” you can bet that the “experts” that show up are either registered lobbyists for interest groups around FOIA, or federal vendors who make the software and infrastructure around FOIA. But they’re all people that have been working on these problems for years.

This yields to entrenched power. Those that have “years of expertise” around a regulatory subject are entrenched and become the default source of information around it. Thus innovation happens less and the ideas inside Washington stagnate. If the only inputs into the system are the ones that are financed to give input, then the only inputs the system gets are the ones that that rely on the way the system gets financed.

This is admittedly a small problem (and also one I have an economic interest in), and it’s also one that government is working on. When Obama took office, his first executive order called for ExpertNet(now a dead wiki), whose job it was to “offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information.”

The idea was that government could build a giant platform, and that experts would deliver their collective expertise online to government and thus better policy would be created. This idea is good, but it ignores an economic principal: those with more expertise generally have less time.

If government wants real expertise for policy making, then it has to include some form of compensation – either through money, access or stature (you’re on the presidential commission for regulatory arts).

This is an excellent example of why [procurement causes ethics problems] in Washington. Because it costs so much time and money to pay for advice inside the government, it’s only done rarely. Here’s a radical idea: let’s change the system so that government can quickly pay people who are smart at what they do, just like everybody else in the world does.

For subject matter experts, I think (and again, I’m biased and have an economic interest) that the way to solve this problem is through direct payment. It ought to be very easy for government agencies to pay experts less than $5,000 for their time, without much of a hassle. That’ll get government some expertise it needs when it needs it. Understand that this may sound simple to you, but inside the government there are stacks of regulatory policy that actually stop this from happening most of the time. But it can be fixed.

For a wider net, I never understood why government wants to build its own platforms for interaction with the public. In order to win an election, Barack Obama did not build his own mall to hand out flyers in. He (and his campaign staff) went to malls where people already were and handed out flyers there.

So I was thrilled when Aneesh Chopra our former CTO, started asking questions on Quora. And while it may be tempting to say that solves the problem, it really doesn’t as you cannot tie the government to one particular medium made by one particular company. We run into huge problems that way. That’s why we built ThinkUp over at ExpertLabs – it’s a network independent app that allows you to sort through all the answers you get.

In order for government to get what it needs – the experts that it needs, it’s got to get over making special platforms for itself and go to where its constituents are. Which is why the concept of identity is important: in order for government to get the best expertise, it’s got to know who is providing it. We need more Aneeshes on more Quoras and we all need to celebrate and make winning opportunities out of those solicitations.

This question of expertise is going to take regulatory change as well as outside technical championship if its able to happen. But until it does, the majority of inputs into the system will continue to be the inputs that have a vested interest in keeping things the same. And that’s got to change.

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