Government should focus on the consumer experience

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, shares his thoughts on what federal agencies could learn from Silicon Valley.

Chris Anderson would be the first to tell you that he does not understand how government works. As editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, which is published by Condé Nast, Anderson spends his days talking with people who live on the frontiers of technology as they search for the next Twitter or Facebook. Like most people, Anderson doesn't really care how government works. What matters to him is that it does work, especially on the Web. 

Anderson will deliver a keynote address March 10 at the FOSE conference, presented by 1105 Government Information Group, Federal Computer Week’s parent company. He recently shared his thoughts on what federal agencies could learn from entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Here are excerpts of that conversation. 

22-year-olds changing the world

We've trained a generation to expect certain things of online services. To what extent can government services satisfy that? I live in as different a world as you can imagine from the government world. We do things on weekends with credit cards. We do things with 21-year-olds who have no limits. We don’t have policies and procedures; we just do [it].

So that’s obviously a really exciting way to start new companies and create new technology that doesn’t necessary scale to large organizations. I know that because I work for a large organization. But there is a lot to be learned from 22-year-olds using open-source software on weekends to change the world. And the question is: To what extent can government do more with less? To what extent can government use these increasingly good, free and open tools out there to deliver services to a generation that expects them that way?

You look around and you see just a generation gap, total discontinuity between best practice in the private sector and best practice in the public sector in terms of the Web.

It feels like the lessons of Web 2.0 do not seem to fully propagate it within government. By that, I don’t necessarily mean federal; it also applies to state. I was trying to pay a ticket online last night. The payment site has been down for four, five days. There isn’t a start-up run by teenagers that could be down for more than 10 minutes without outrage. And an entire city’s payment process is down for five days, and no one [cares].

I don’t really understand why government can’t look like any other good service. Why can’t government look like Amazon, you know?

I’m sure there are real answers involving things like laws and regulations and restrictions and all of that kind of stuff, but none of that seems to explain why sites are down for five days. None of that seems to explain why things that should take 10 seconds take six weeks. None of that explains the sort of failure to innovate. I don’t think regulation and legal restrictions are the answer. I think that basically there’s kind of a general disregard for the consumer experience.

Not living up to expectations

We have been trained to basically expect things to work well and quickly. The Googles and the Amazons of the world have pretty much set the expectations for an online experience, and anybody who doesn’t live up to that expectation is going to suffer.

I say that as part of a big company that also, in many ways, failed to live up to that expectation. And, you know, the fact that we’re doing better than we used to is not good enough; we have to be living up to the standards that this generation expects. If our search doesn’t work, it doesn’t really matter why it doesn’t work — it just should work.

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