As was expected, Wired’s June issue has a story about Vivek Kundra, the first-ever White House Chief Information Officer. The Obama administration’s vision on federal data release in a machine-readable, user-rateable and taggable form is indeed very fascinating.
Towards the end of the interview, almost as a side to the main topic, the interviewer asks this question:
As CTO of Washington, you moved tens of thousands of employees from Microsoft Office to Google Apps to save money. Part of your new agenda is shifting the government to cloud computing and using free software. How will that happen?
I had missed it: in October 2008, as Obama was busy with his campaign, Kundra worked as Chief Technology Officer of District of Columbia. In that capacity, he moved 38,000 employees of the District’s administration from Microsoft Office to the Google cloud suite, obviously saving quite a lot of taxpayer money.
The problem with this story is that it looks like a theoretical impossibility. Incrementalist thinking – Yale’s Charles Lindblom being its most prestigious academic – is extremely influential in the American political science tradition. Incrementalists looked up deep, important reforms like the introduction of the Federal budget under the Roosevelt administration, and concluded that reform happens in small steps, aiming for what is possible, i.e. “the present situation plus or minus five per cent”. Migrate 38,000 employees from a system to another, mister Kundra? What about trade unions? And suppliers? How can we train employees for the new system? How can we get the middle management’s consensus? Trust us, mister Kundra, it can’t be done. Let’s do a pilot project instead, or a feasibility study. Something more… realistic. Incremental.
The incrementalist position – which I respect deeply – remind me of Clarke’s first law: when a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. Did Kundra ever read Lindblom? Did he know his reform was impossible whan he went ahead and did it? He made it happen anyway. I wonder whether a little less of scientific realism and a little more healthy recklessness would not be a better recipe for reformers all over the world.