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What IT leaders can learn from regulations

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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 the Editor-in-Chief of both FCW and GCN, two of the oldest and most influential publications in public-sector IT. Both publications (originally known as Federal Computer Week and Government Computer News, respectively) are owned by GovExec. Mr. Schneider also serves GovExec's General Manager for Government Technology Brands.

Mr. Schneider previously served as New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company, where he oversaw the online operations of The Atlantic Monthly, National Journal, The Hotline and The Almanac of American Politics, among other publications. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Mr. Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Mr. Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

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