Point of View

"Once one of these bureaucracies or programs comes into existence, it's got more lives than Freddy Krueger, since you can never kill it off without political cost."

by / December 31, 1995
Mainframe Government in an Internet World. Eventually, any operating system reaches the end of its developmental envelope and "bugs, kludges and incompatibilities" overwhelm it. The same thing has happened to 20th century bureaucracy, says James P. Pinkerton, a former deputy assistant for policy planning in the Bush administration and author of a fascinating new book, What Comes Next: The End of Big Government and the New Paradigm Ahead.

"Like a [computer] operating system," Pinkerton writes, "bureaucracy is made up of procedures and hierarchies. It coordinates activities, gathers and disseminates information, and organizes input and output. We can call the current mechanisms of government the Bureaucratic Operating System, or BOS.

"The BOS has dominated world politics in this century," the author notes. "With few exceptions, it has ruled over individuals and parties, and its empire still stands. Bureaucracy can be upgraded endlessly -- although with diminishing returns ..."

To oversimplify the premise of Pinkerton's book, we've been upgrading and revising our current BOS far beyond its inherent ability to perform. It's time to quit tinkering with tired old code and -- like Microsoft's Windows 95 or Sun's Solaris -- come up with a new "operating system" for governance.

Massachusetts Gov. Weld may have taken a cue from Pinkerton's book if you've seen the document he released in November: The Government We Choose: Lean, Focused, Affordable. The plan outlines, among other things, reducing the number of cabinet secretariats by five, the number of state agencies by 76 and the number of boards and commissions by 263.

The plan also calls for sunsetting the entire Code of Massachusetts Regulations by Jan. 1, 1997, and abolishing what the governor calls the state's "antiquated" civil service system.

More significant than downsizing, however, the report lays out a vision for a reorganized statewide government that cuts across or does away with traditional jurisdictional boundaries and harnesses information technology to deliver services around key functional areas like public safety and education.

Weld's plan will be put before the Massachusetts Legislature this month. Its fate is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that -- like the heated commercial marketplace that is defining standards for computer software -- the political marketplace is alive today with the struggle over what standards of governance we'll use in the years ahead.

Not long ago, most government information technology problems were solved by throwing more computing horsepower -- MIPS (millions of instructions per second) -- into the breach. Today, computing power has become infinitely cheaper but the public sector's information technology challenges are becoming a lot tougher.

Underlying this paradox is the issue Pinkerton and Weld are confronting, an Industrial-Age government under tremendous pressure to evolve in an increasingly interconnected world. For public-sector executives this means the information technology issues in the later half of the 1990s rest more on navigating dramatic political, policy and administrative change than deploying technology.


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