The Duty of Curiosity

The Duty of Curiosity

by / April 16, 2002
The directors of Enron are learning that not knowing is an inadequate defense. They have the fiduciary responsibility to ask tough questions of management. As one sage put it, they have the duty of curiosity.

The duty of curiosity is a useful way to think about the responsibility of public servants in delivering government services and ensuring the means of conducting government are sufficiently nimble and robust to anticipate future demand.

Already scarce public resources are being further constrained by recession-driven revenue shortfalls in state and local treasuries. It is a daunting environment for public officials and their managers, who find themselves responsible for closing down parts of history while, at the same time, anticipating the opening of new vistas for public service. The latter typically involves making decisions about technology, an area in which many feel ill equipped.

There is no substitute for curiosity. But where to start? Perhaps the best starting place is with a shift in perspective, which can help in asking the right questions and developing scenarios that would have otherwise been hidden from view. There are four considerations that may help us all get where we want to be.

Reverse history. What if the Internet and the printing press had changed places in history? Paper processes are ubiquitous in government because, in large measure, the printing press has had a 500-year head start in reshaping the world around itself. The Internet represents no less an inflection point than Johann Gutenberg's invention, yet we have only begun to see its effects. Consider that the two things that government does in huge volume -- moving money and issuing permissions -- are more effectively done in a bit-based world than the atom-based world. Seen this way, digital technologies correct a historical accident by disintermediating an unnecessary layer of cost -- paper and the structures that support its processing and storage.

Focus on the cost of a unit of service. A project to transform a paper-based process comes with a visible price tag, in contrast to the costs of that which it would replace. The existing process is not free, but its costs have long since incorporated here and there. The status quo appears to be the less expensive, obvious choice. Those assumptions are worth testing by shifting the view from total program cost to the cost per unit of service. The unit of service measure matters, especially as governments anticipate increasing demands for public services. Digital service delivery scales more effectively than conventional channels, and at a fraction of the cost per transaction.

Sunset everything. Formal sunset reviews are the bureaucratic equivalent of a group root canal, and not something people would typically call down on themselves. However, the underlying question of sunset reviews is a sound and helpful one: Does it still make sense to do things this way? Many worthy initiatives remain in place over time, other initiatives run their course and are properly retired or replaced, and still others only seemed like a good idea at the time.

The sunset approach allows us to work through the polarized debate about whether digital government is the new mainstream for service delivery (at the expense of some conventional means) or only another channel (additional capacity for which there are no countervailing savings). So sunset everything, including the Internet channel, but do it in order of appearance. Take a hard look at the mature channels first, including their continued viability on this side of the Internet inflection point. Electronic channels warrant scrutiny too -- and should be compared to the incumbents on metrics that matter, including the cost per unit of service. Such reviews will validate the keepers, provide the basis for adjusting the service delivery mix, and help prioritize technology investments moving forward.

View demographic interests broadly. Sunset reviews bring with them the all but inevitable defense that specific portions of the population have relied on government processes being done a certain way for years. It's a legitimate concern, but one that can also mask resistance to change. Interestingly, advocates for aging, poor and disabled persons increasingly contend for opening possibilities through new technologies, rather than simply ensuring the continuation of familiar but clunky processes.

There is an entire generation that has never known homes without personal computers. For people of this generation, the Internet is the first choice for commerce, chatting with friends and connecting to a sense of community. As with young people throughout history, curiosity is their disposition -- including wondering how well we have done in fulfilling our duty.

Paul W. Taylor is the chief strategy officer of the Center for Digital Government, the former deputy state CIO of Washington and a veteran of start-ups.
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.