Post-election priority: Unleashing the forces of disruptive innovation on the federal government

I am hopeful that when the dust is settled from the wild and crazy 2020 election, that smart politicians at the state level, especially governors and state legislators, will tackle one of the most important issues facing the country – dysfunction at the federal level of government.

That might sound strange that state leaders should focus on federal dysfunction, but I believe only the states can bring the federal government under control, especially its profligate deficit spending that threatens the nation’s future.

I’ve written about this previously, but in the business world, we have often seen the forces of “disruptive innovation” at work. The late Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen wrote best-selling books about the inevitable process of large, bureaucratic, top-down, slow-moving businesses or industries being “disrupted” by smaller, nimble, innovative competitors.

In business, this process, while deadly for lethargic firms, eventually produces better products, superior customer service, and an upward spiral in efficiency, productivity, wealth creation, and quality of life.

We need to apply the beneficial process of disruptive innovation to government. Obviously, government isn’t subject to the same competitive forces as private businesses. Government operates by force and coercion, imposing its will by law and regulation, not according to market needs or consumer demand.

If the federal government was a business, it would clearly be ripe for disruption. It is top-heavy, bureaucratic, overly-prescriptive and unresponsive to its citizens. It is so deeply in debt that it’s hard to see how it could ever balance its budget. In many way, it has lost the trust and faith of citizens.

I believe the federal government has amassed and centralized so much power and responsibility that it is incapable of effectively accomplishing the tasks it has taken upon itself. The reason our presidents fail is that their job description has become too large for any human to achieve.

The ultra-centralized federal model would never work in business, and isn’t working in politics. The federal government was never intended to take care of every need of every citizen from cradle to grave. In a country as big and diverse as the United States, such expectations are simply unrealistic, despite federal hubris and promises made by federal officials.

In effect, our federal leaders are set up for failure. No one can meet such high expectations. Putting aside politics, ideology, political parties, and personalities, the reality is that the federal government is just plain broken from a practical, operational standpoint.

So the federal government needs to be “disrupted.” And it could actually happen – if we return to those principles of good governance espoused by the nation’s founders. The founders actually designed a system incorporating a form of disruptive innovation, although that’s obviously not what they called it. They fully expected that the 50 sovereign states would compete with the federal government, keep it in check, and not allow it to grow too large or too prescriptive. They expected the states to act as disruptors, keeping our nation’s governance in balance and the federal government focused in areas where it has supremacy and can achieve and excel.

States and local governments are better positioned to deliver most day-to-day government services that citizens want and are willing to pay for because they are more nimble, more innovative, more focused, and closer to the people. Success in government depends entirely on having the support of the citizenry. Recent survey research shows that citizens overwhelmingly trust state and local governments over the federal government when it comes to spending their tax dollars wisely and understanding public needs.

States can truly serve as laboratories of democracy. Through use of the incredible tools of technology, states and local governments today can communicate, collaborate, learn best practices, and form interstate compacts better than ever before. Empowered states would result in an upward spiral of competence and capability, a race to the top, rather than a race to the bottom.

Empowered states would foster innovation and creativity. It’s the bottom-up way the best organizations in the world now operate, with decentralized intelligence and power.

States would each approach problems differently, just as different businesses compete for customers in different ways. Some states might want single-payer health care. Some might want an entirely market-based approach. Some might want Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as currently constituted; others may want to try radically new approaches. Some states may want high taxes and plentiful services; other states may want low taxes and maximum individual responsibility.

Such diversity would be good for the country. Some programs might fail. Some states might fail. But that’s better than the entire country failing. Clearly, 50 governors, 8,000 state legislators, and thousands more local officials are more likely to solve the nation’s health, education and welfare problems than 535 congressmen and one president in isolated, out-of-touch Washington, D.C.

The federal government, focused on its limited constitutional role, could be a lean, mean, fighting machine. It could be efficient and effective.  It could be a success, instead of a failure, dealing with national defense, immigration, foreign affairs, interstate commerce and other constitutional duties.

Today, the federal government operates like an old-fashioned, one-size-fits all mainframe computer in an era of decentralized innovation and intelligence distributed among millions of networked smartphones and iPads via crowdsourcing and cloud computing.

I never cease to marvel at the inspired wisdom of this country’s founders. It is interesting that the balanced federalism they established, which we have unfortunately strayed from, will work better in this era of dramatic scientific progress and advanced technology than it did in the days of horses and buggies. This is the progressive, forward-looking, high-tech way to solve the problems our country faces.

If states and local governments are to be disruptors, they must be empowered so they can compete with the federal government as co-equals, rather than in a master-servant relationship.

Interestingly, the role of federal competitor is precisely the responsibility the founders gave to the states. James Madison, writing in the Federalist Papers, emphasized over and over again that the states would vigorously fight any federal usurpation of state prerogatives. He said “ambition would counteract ambition.” He went so far as to say that states would resist federal control as though a foreign power was invading.

We need to re-enthrone states as co-equals with the federal government. And there are ways to do this – which will be the subject of future essays on this topic.