"Go West Young Man"

Dear Reader,

Here’s a crazy idea: what if the deep potential of the internet lies in government?  Not through some federal policy or DARPA scheme mind you but in how technology might transform what actually constitutes government – for instance the delivery of basic public goods like water, roads or schools. What if 20 years from now we’ll look back on the history of the internet and the frontier phase from the 1990’s to the early 21rst century will be seen as merely a warm-up to the radically larger shift in political economy that information technology allowed by revolutionizing the challenges of bureaucracy? What if the current barrier to that transformation wasn’t technical so much as institutional inertia?

I actually just left my job as a public finance analyst to move up to Silicon Valley because I deeply believe this opportunity reflects the most important challenge facing public servants today.  That might sound a little crazy but the decision becomes obvious when I ask myself a simple question: what will excellence in public service look like in 10 years?  I firmly believe it'll be vastly different than what we see today.  Consider a few trends.

Confidence in public institutions has reached record lows. The world economy remains paralyzed by an ongoing global banking crisis. A growing school of thought led by the likes of Peter Thiel and Tyler Cowen argues that technological growth – a core driver of human progress – has slowed for last past few decades.

And then there’s the question of the internet, which although enabling us to connect to each other in new in different ways, seems to have fallen short of the original 90’s era promise to foundationally transform society. The ability to waste time anywhere with anyone on Facebook’s Farmeville may allow new app-driven private sector growth but that hardly changes the world – let alone build a better one.

I have become convinced, however, that by and large those zany 90’s cybervisions were not wrong so much as premature and that the deep application of these tools to public problems will change, well, everything. I have seen firsthand the immense potential for information technology to transform how we tackle the delivery of basic public goods like schools, roads, and water resources.

Since I began my career in 2005 as a counselor at Sunshine Fun Camp, I have worked to tackle public problems from more perspectives than my Economist-loving high school self knew existed. I’ve worked at America’s largest water district, at a two person media startup (myself included) covering LA City Hall, at my local State Senators district office, at the largest public employee union in Southern California, at a campaign predicated on curtailing public employee union power, at the California Department of Finance tracking stimulus money, at a network nonprofit training other civic organizations to create get out the vote programs, and at the nation’s capital representing California local governments. And throughout that experience I have tackled public challenges with sustained analytical rigor: I led pioneering GIS research projects at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government for four years, wrote and published A New California Dream over the course of the next eighteen months, and spent the last 21 months as an analyst at the nation's leading public finance firm.

Revolutionizing Bureaucracy

For the past two years I’ve also served as a Director for the Los Angeles Education Partnership, a $5 million nonprofit with a three decade track record of developing educational excellence.  And over the course of the past year, I have designed and led the initial implementation of the LAEP Viral project -- an effort to creatively explore how LAEP might leverage technology to scale our model of activating community to create educational excellence. For instance, we have a time-honed method of inquiry based professional development built around quality peer to peer dialogue. Such viral interactions are hard to scale through solely face to face contact. LAUSD has 45,000 teachers, and we are a roughly 40 person nonprofit. So we have implemented a tool that virtualizes some of that engagement.

More broadly, we have been building out connections with Imagine K-12, an education technology accelerator located in Palo Alto, to more fully pioneer the possibility laden intersection of virtual and real world models in education. The deep hypothesis is that such connectivity will enable new mechanisms to activate community, moving the needle on how we engage the challenges John Dewey eloquently articulated in The Public and its Problems:

“Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless, seeking spasmodically for itself, but seizing and holding its shadow rather than its substance. Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication can alone create a great community.”

Let’s remember that the internet is ultimately a commons – in many ways the greatest agora humanity has ever known. And in that vein, the nascent "Gov 2.0" movement, although perhaps a bit faddy, rings true.

As a Coro Fellow in 2010-11, I explored how foundational facets of the human condition interface with how we work in a group, manage an organization, or form government -- in the broadest, and I mean broadest, sense of the word possible. For instance, while at the Southern California Association of Governments I surveyed best practices and reimagined how the organization might better comment on projects as part of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”).

It struck me as profoundly odd that agencies would shuffle thick stacks of project documentation back and forth when the actual original content consisted of a few sentences of comment. Why not just have a gchat conversation? Or looking beyond these agencies to the public more broadly, why not integrate a platform like quora to organically mediate the sharing of tribal knowledge like insight into the environmental impact or feasibility of a given project?  

For the past 21 months, I worked as an analyst at Public Financial Management, supporting the management of basic public infrastructure throughout my home state of California. Beyond engaging in standard public finance deal flow, I have researched and developed quantitative models for the $13 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan conveyance construction and environmental mitigation and several multi-million dollar public-private partnerships.  

Life as an analyst gives one an interesting perspective into the substantial terra incognita in public problems. Every day I swam in vast streams of information -- credit reports, market updates, and reams of financials -- and yet comprehensive data for utilities, schools, and cities -- essential for integrating public services -- too often simply doesn’t exist. For instance, I’ve spent the past several years hunting in vain for a map -- or the requisite shapefiles in order to build one -- of the municipal boundaries of California’s roughly 7000 local governments. Or recently when I was looking for data on retail water rates in Southern California, I realized that the most up to date survey was done in 2006 -- by yours truly in an old internship!

Root Causes

More broadly, I often find myself pondering how remarkably little we know about what's the root cause of our public problems and whether our ostensible solutions are actually working. Why is educational opportunity in Los Angeles a function of zip code? What's causing that disparity? What "solutions" actually help the situation? Which solutions scale and how might we tailor that to a specific situation?  Which have unintended side effects? What else might we consider as potentially new approaches?

Too often our engagement with such questions gets buried in mammoth hundred page reports and trapped in arcane institutions like LA “Mumified” aka the Los Angeles Unified School District. Yet as we engage that challenge, it’s worth remembering what James Q. Wilson, perhaps the greatest thinker on the problems of bureaucracy, had to say about the possibility of its solution:

“Perhaps a grand re-organization, accompanied by lots of "systems analysis," "citizen participation," "creative federalism," and "interdepartmental coordination." Merely to state this prospect is to deny it.”

Perhaps.  Yet perhaps not. Don't those requirements -- "systems analysis," "citizen participation," or "interdepartmental coordination" -- seem like precisely the sort of problems that the internet would enable new categories of solutions to?  Those are ultimately communications and knowledge gaps.

Looking deeper though, the epistemological antecedents of these problems lack easy -- or often any -- answers and notoriously lead to elliptical discourse on the human condition, an idea I’ve been chewing on for a while now. In middle school, I vividly remember reading Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  I did not get very far into the work and honestly understood even less, yet the questions Locke raised continue to linger. What role does experience play in shaping a person? What transcends one’s position in life? How do I know -- anything really -- with certainty?  

In no small coincidence, my undergraduate intellectual focus -- and continued passions -- were mathematics and philosophy.  Note neither of these exactly qualify as innovative tools, having in fact structured methodologies for thousands of years. I have never taken a formal CS course in my life (don't think Zed Shaw would agree with the word formal), and my programming experience is limited to playing around on Project Euler and managing unnecessarily complicated VBA models in excel. I’m not a fancy technologist -- far from it.

I just believe there’s a frontier of possibility for how government might tackle basic public problems and that the pioneering spirit that defines California might add value to that cause.  In a nutshell, that’s why I do what I do and why I wrote my book

A New California Dream

.  An illustrative excerpt:

“The world has changed far faster than government’s ability to keep pace, creating a huge space for good government reforms to better society. In William Mulholland’s era, Los Angeles could get its water through the work of a single agency acting essentially in isolation. Today, however, not only do you need coordination between multiple agencies at multiple levels of government that simply deal with water, but our world is fundamentally more connected, with profound institutional consequences.

Operating that water infrastructure is predicated on a vast array of telecommunications and electrical systems, involving several more sets of public and private actors. Even NASA and the military are involved. Refurbished predator drones are flown over the Bay Delta to gather environmental quality data. Today a dazzling array of interlocking parts work together to ensure Californians have a clean, secure, and sustainable supply of water.

The fundamental challenge California faces – getting water from where it falls to where it’s needed – hasn’t changed. But rather than having a set of institutions designed to solve that problem, we’ve settled for a byzantine structure that only exists because that’s the way things have always been. So why not unleash the famed creativity of the California people to systematically rethink how government can address the fundamental challenges – schools, prisons, water, public safety, etc. – we face as a people?” [p. 195]

I honestly do not know what that will ultimately look like. I find it an immensely humbling exercise to reflect on the fact that nearly every president in the past century and countless grand good government commissions have proposed bureaucratic reorganizations and yet the deep problems of efficiency, arbitrariness, and ability to tackle the root causes of public problems still linger.  Perhaps we are simply stuck with those conditions. Yet the story of humanity is nothing if not one of creating tools to improve our lot.

Terra Incognita

Still anecdote and intuition are no substitutes for deep political economy; they merely provide motivation. It is in that spirit that I’d like to offer a few loose conjectures for how recent technological advances might transform how we deliver public goods:

1) “In God we trust, all others must bring data”

The hypothesis here is that better data will allow for better analysis of public problems and thus better decisions on the best avenue to tackle them. In his annual foundation letter, Bill Gates eloquently articulated the power of this sort of analysis.  "You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal-in a feedback loop."

2) “Communication can alone create a Great community”

The internet at a basic level connects humans in new ways, allowing new pathways to activate community. Witness the proliferation of online discussion groups and how they bleed into real world meetups. Imagine if we had an online platform as intuitive and robust as facebook to link learning in schools to the real world through job shadows, guest speakers, internships, field trips, and other mechanisms. The ability to scale volunteer interactions could go well beyond schools though, particularly if we integrated such tools with a rethinking of what constitutes the social contract. The growth in collaborative consumption is an exemplar of this potential.

3) Changing Everything

We’re sort of at a weird moment in world history.  The standard barometers of our economic and political health are getting a little wacky. The President of the IMF says the world economy won’t recover until 2018.  Our political system lurches from one self-imposed crisis to the next.

And at the same time folks like Ray Kurzweil say we’re close to the singularity, people like Robert Gordon argue that the pace of innovation has slowed dramatically.  Then you have intriguing thinkers like Isabella Kaminski wondering how close we are to a post-scarcity world in the real economy -- at least for some sectors. Mass proliferation of robots and/or additive manufacture might make many goods beyond abundant. Such possibilities hint at a foundationally new political economy.

These conjectures are ultimately speculative and I laugh at myself as I wonder whether these three ideas will prove as accurate as those 16th century maps of California as an island.  And that metaphor highlights a big problem in the world today: the need for practical maps to make sense of the upheavals in political economy going on in the world today.

For the past 15 months, I’ve run the Daily Stag Hunt with a few friends from college, working to pioneer a few unique political economy insights on our blog.  We might have new tools today.  Yet the basic challenges of figuring out how we humans might better live together is as old as human civilization.  If anything the tried and true tools of reflection, analysis and critical inquiry are more valuable in times of change.

Stephan Colbert puts the point much more succinctly. After listening to Gavin Newsom explain his new book Citizenville, he asked, “What the fuck does any of that mean?”

In a nutshell, that’s the challenge I’m looking to tackle: articulating the potential of technology to revolutionize what constitutes government in clear practical terms. I believe there’s gold there, even if its not clear precisely where it is.

So here’s the plan: embark on a proverbial expedition to California. Rather than mapping more California-as-islands from afar, I intend to go to to Silicon Valley to more fully explore how technology might revolutionize what constitutes government in California and beyond.  

That's a vague abstract idea, but that's the defining aspect of a frontier: the unknown. I've got plans, projects and a pile of cliff bars saved up but ultimately all I've got is a hunch that there's something big out West.

Will keep you all posted if we find anything cool.

Cheers,

Atwater