Money cannot fill a public policy void.
Anticipation is building as the calendar counts down to the first quarterly report on stimulus spending. States must begin reporting on the use of federal economic recovery funds on Oct. 11. Even in the near real-time world of the Obama administration, it will take some time for the numbers to roll up -- if they do -- and a picture to emerge of what we are getting for our stimulus spending.
"We could speculate on where we are going to be," said Robert Atkinson, president of the nonpartisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C. "It can help jump-start the smart grid market, it will significantly help jump-start the health IT transformation, and will make a down payment on universal broadband coverage."
But there are a couple of buts to Atkinson's preliminary assessment. The first is the obvious one: It's simply too early to draw conclusions. The second is a nagging feeling that a new bucket of money cannot fill a public policy void. Like nature, public policy abhors a vacuum. Something fills in, often skewing the process and results.
Take broadband, a primary area of research and advocacy by the ITIF, which concluded that it's vital to what Atkinson calls digital prosperity and national competitiveness. He said policymakers are still thinking about it the wrong way: "What I worry about is that we are too myopically focused on one technology -- one part of the system, if you will -- albeit an important [one]," Atkinson said. "But if you look at what other countries are doing, they are basically way past that phase. They went through the pipe phase [and are] now onto a broader phase, what you could call ubiquitous connectivity ... or digital transformation."
He recites the other guys' competitive differentiators in a detailed staccato: "The Japanese, the Koreans: national leadership, national rollout, national coordination -- and they built the system. So they are way, way ahead of us. Our challenge is this: A lot of these digital infrastructures are national in scope."
If we need to catch up on digital infrastructure, Atkinson said we need to reverse course on digital health care. The policy void is the same; the results are worse. "We went down what I would say was a bad path, essentially, by relying on RHIOs -- regional health information organizations," said Atkinson, "thinking that we could build a national health IT system by a bunch of bottom-up regional efforts, and it failed. Regional efforts don't coordinate; they don't scale. This is a national challenge, and it has to be dealt with nationally."
Americans tend to treat the word national as a synonym for big. Others see it as a singular, unique trait or peculiar characteristic that defines a nation. Atkinson's foundation came to appreciate the distinction when it launched an international study on technology leadership around the world. It didn't take long before the researchers realized that big was no substitute for peculiar.
"Our hypothesis going into the study was that scale gave you advantage. What we realized in this is that it actually isn't an advantage," Atkinson recalled. "What brings the advantage is two things: One is the ability to articulate and act on a vision, and the second is the ability to bring all the players together in a coordinated manner. We certainly don't have the former, and the latter is harder for us in a big country in a federalist system."
The stimulus cannot solve these problems by itself. But good policy can, with the help of public servants who are the only ones who can breathe life into vision.
Editor's Note: This column originally appeared as Nothing as Practical as Good Policy in the August/September print issue of Public CIO.