Editorial: Rewarding innovation

The Census Bureau's decision to return to paper is indicative of government's lack of incentives for innovation

The story of the 2010 census’ trip from paper to electronic — and back again — probably doesn’t surprise anyone who follows the Census Bureau. Census has been reluctant to try new ways to conduct the decennial count. In fact, what is remarkable is that last June, we were talking about whether Census could use the Internet to collect data — a concept Census officials rejected.

The failure of Census to use technology in any significant way is troubling. But what is almost as troubling is the impression — correct or mistaken — that Census officials were never interested in using technology in innovative ways. And Census is not alone. It is a big problem for government: the lack of incentive for innovation.

It has become a truism that government doesn’t run like a business. One reason is that doing work faster, more efficiently or in new and different ways often comes with enormous risks. Those risks generally overwhelm any desire for innovation.

Another reason is that agencies rarely have simple, clear-cut, focused statements of work — conceptually, not contractually speaking. Businesses have a simple mission — make a profit — but most agencies’ missions are replete with nuance. One example: the Homeland Security Department’s port initiatives. The mission is to protect the United States from terrorism. That mission could be easily accomplished by preventing cargo containers from entering the country. That solution is clearly not feasible because it would also block commerce.

The Census Bureau’s mission is to get the most accurate count possible. The safest way to do that is to use the “this is how we have always done it” method. One could argue that Census officials took a chance on information technology this year — and now they are probably questioning if  the risk was worth it.

We are not going to offer cover for the bureau’s embarrassing inability to incorporate technology into the 2010 count. There is plenty of blame to go around, including in the halls of Congress, which continues to be unable to pass a budget in a timely manner and often cuts funds for programs such as the census while ensuring money for their own pet projects.

But there does need to be a way to encourage innovation. If only there were easy answers to complex problems.

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