In contrast to the slow food movement, whose advocates say it’s an idea whose time has come, slow government has no advocates because slowness has long been seen as the problem to be fixed. Advocates of government reform and innovation often tout variations of better, faster and cheaper in making their cases for change. Better can be hard to measure, cheaper can be hard to realize, but faster is always an improvement.
Even when technology is used to speed up old, tired, unreformed processes, we call it paving the cow path. Suboptimal to be sure, but still better than slow, right? If there is a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink on your bookshelf, you respond as Tevye (the affable milkman in Fiddler on the Roof) would: “Of course, right.” Seen this way, instinct is pitted against intellect in decision-making, and the difference between brilliance and incompetence is the speed at which decisions are made.
But perhaps our speed fixation is itself a rush to judgment. In a trilogy of books drawn from research on hundreds of companies — Good to Great, Built to Last and Great by Choice — Jim Collins has long emphasized taking the long view: “Faith in the end game helps you live through the months or years of buildup.”
The buildup is too much for some people. Early in my public service career, a private-sector member of the state technology oversight board quit in frustration, writing,“ We made some progress but the inertia was considerable.”
Frank Partnoy thinks that well timed inertia may not be all bad. He is a law and finance professor at the University of San Diego and author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. Based on a fresh read of thousands of research studies, Partnoy argues that procrastination or what he prefers to call “managing delay” in a rapidly changing and complex world can actually help with decision-making.
A well timed pause helps make a person or organization more aware of their limitations and opportunities. Partnoy may have identified the underappreciated genius of what is often a frustrating political process, demonstrating that many decisions are better for having “being made at the last possible moment.” The people at the top of their game in almost any area of life, who Partnoy calls “delay specialists,” distinguish themselves as rock stars by knowing how long they can afford to “delay before committing is at the heart of many a great decision.”
He argues that’s true even — or especially — when there is a time crunch. The experience of trading from what worked to increase transaction speeds only to back off later illustrates the point: “It was the oddest thing. In a world that values speed so much, you could be slower, yet still be better.”
None of this is to give bureaucracies a pass for getting bogged down in endless cycles of phone calls about meetings and meetings about phone calls, or excuse bad actors for obstructing progress, but it does give some hope for the slow and deliberate pace of government.
Partnoy calls on organizations to “devote themselves to the long haul, and the long haul means years and years and years before they’ll have true innovation.” It’s a dynamic that northwest pioneer and missionary Marcus Whitman understood. His statue stands at the entrance of the Washington state Capitol and is inscribed: “My plans require time and distance.” And such is the defining attribute of innovation at the speed of government, then and now.
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.