Bookshelf

What IT leaders can learn from regulations

book cover

In 2009, University of Chicago scholars Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler published "Nudge," a best-selling and widely praised book on how decisions are made and how to encourage better ones. Sunstein, at that point, had already been tapped by President Barack Obama to lead the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and from that post he put many of the book's theories into practice across the federal government.

Four years later, Sunstein has stepped down from OIRA and moved from the University of Chicago to Harvard Law School, where he directs the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. And with "Simpler: The Future of Government," Sunstein wants to make clear just what "choice architecture" tweaks and government nudges were able to accomplish.

"Simpler" does not focus on technology. It mentions technology per se just a handful of times and usually in passing, so a reader could be forgiven for seeing the book as a self-congratulatory recap of Sunstein's regulatory successes at OIRA. Yet the book is not really about regulations either. Its emphasis is on clarity and outcomes, and therein lie valuable lessons for any IT initiative.

Excerpt

People stop making some important mistakes when they speak in a foreign language.... We slow down. We think more deliberately.

In government, I learned that cost/benefit analysis is, in a sense, a foreign language, and it works for that reason. It helps to displace intuitions and reactions that can lead us in unfortunate and potentially even dangerous directions. It helps to counteract both hysteria and neglect. Cost/benefit analysis is not itself simple, but it is a great engine of simplification.

Some of those lessons are tactical -- how to know when "sensible default rules" are appropriate and desirable, and when prechecking the box on a form will create more problems than it solves. Others are examples to emulate -- for example, iPads and other tablet PCs, Sunstein said, are amazing for their ability to provide power and complexity through a simple, intuitive interface.

And still others are reminders that the people who will use a system usually have a very different perspective from those who design it. For the creators, Sunstein wrote, "adding a few provisions, questions or subparts just isn't a big deal, because to them, it's all so familiar. But if a student, a parent or an owner of a small business tries to grapple with government documents, it is easy to get lost.... The consequences can be bad and in some cases even tragic." The same certainly holds true for any number of enterprise IT solutions.

Sunstein also argues that technology can be a force for simplification and smarter outcomes in government. Electronic reporting can make compliance "cheap and easy," while the opening of more data can improve everything from fuel economy to tax law to agency adaptability.

Ultimately, however, the message of "Simpler" is appropriately concise: Clarify, measure outcomes carefully, and talk to your end user. It's OK to nudge, but only if you know where to push.

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN. Connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.


The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above