Book Reviews

Hey, It’s a Start!

The new thing in government problem-solving is “human-centered design.” It’s an impressive corrective to market-driven theories—up to a point.

By Lawrence R. Jacobs

Tagged GovernmentPublic Policy

Solving Public Problems: A Practical Guide To Fix Our Government And Change Our World by Beth Simone Noveck • Yale University Press • 2021 • 448 pages • $30

Trust in the U.S. government is a Geiger Counter for the disasters and treachery of national politicians over the past half century. Lyndon Johnson’s deception in Vietnam and Richard Nixon’s Watergate punctured the robust political trust of mid-century. Mild upswings in political trust were deflated, more recently, by George W. Bush’s fictitious case for going to war with Iraq in 2003, the collapse and then bailing out of the poorly regulated financial system in 2008, and Donald Trump’s cacophony of lies, constitutional subversion, and insurrection.

Not all was lost, though. Political calamity was good news for the cottage industry devoted to proposing new brands of governance. Corporations and well-endowed foundations have flooded the industry’s leaders with ample resources to propagate and advertise their merchandise.

The peddling of the new-new way to govern is highfalutin and a bit too precious. But pay attention. The winning designs become a roadmap to building and reforming all sorts of government programs. Remember deregulation of finance that brought us the sub-prime mortgage crisis that tanked the U.S. and global economies? How about efforts to “privatize” education and health care that overpromised and underperformed? Stay tuned for a tour behind the scenes.

The medley of government disasters after the 1960s gave new life to a golden oldie—the claim that experts know best and the rest of us should give them the room they need. Alan Blinder, a one-time Princeton economist and Federal Reserve Board member, proposed handing over tax policy to panels of experts. A decade before the financial system imploded following the Fed’s deference to “private regulation” over the real thing, Blinder boasted that the “tax system would surely be simpler, fairer, and more efficient . . . [if it was] left to an independent technical body like the Federal Reserve rather than to congressional committees.” Blinder’s faith in expert guardians has a long lineage, from Plato to Joseph Schumpeter, and a track record of recurrent failure and popular backlash.

The most visible and insistent reformers of public governance have championed the virtues of capitalism—its mastery of efficiency and the gravitational pull of its incentives for gain. This so-called “new public management” supplied the intellectual justification for “privatization” and “outsourcing” to private contractors the responsibilities for public schools, government financing of health care, prisons, and more.

Drum roll, please.

A new, well-funded model is elbowing its way onto the reform stage with a flashy promise to usher in innovation and a “democratic turn.” One of its prominent global advocates is Beth Simone Noveck who makes the case for “human-centered design” (or HCD for short) in her engaging new book, Solving Public Problems: A Practical Guide to Fix Our Government and Change Our World. She has compiled a gaudy track record as New Jersey’s first chief innovation officer, advisor to Barack Obama’s and David Cameron’s governments, and director of Northeastern University’s Governance Lab, which receives funding from the Gates Foundation, Microsoft, and more. If you care about genuine democratic revival and reversing inequality in the United States and globally, you’ll want to know Noveck’s promises and wrong turns.

Noveck’s case for a new “public problem solving” approach rests on two pillars: mining big data using new information technology and incorporating “public expertise” from the lived experience of “ordinary people” affected by problems. She is particularly brash about HCD’s “participatory problem solving”—rejecting the past managerial habit of attempting to “solve other people’s problems” in favor of “defining and solving a problem in collaboration with those who are most affected by it.”

Noveck pairs her energetic brief for HCD with a “toolkit” of practical “to- do exercises” to achieve a “transformation of organizational mindsets and . . .  revolution of individual practice.” The “how to” features of the middle chapters are more didactic than some readers might expect but do flesh out the analytic front sections.

Noveck separates her case for HCD from prior governance models, especially privatization. Part of her move is to savage its track record for causing “widespread” failures and damage to public trust in government. The bigger part is to challenge its “elitist theory”: The “top-down” orientation of privatization elevates the role of business and leadership worship and reduces citizens to the barren category of “consumer” with little expertise to offer.

Big data and new information technology may bring relief to some. But transformative solutions require a new political architecture.

Solving Public Problems delivers a welcome boost of energy and optimism in a time of dread. It pulsates with a “can do” spirit and hopefulness to “solve public problems” that defies the end-times shadow that stalks contemporary commentary. She strides into our desert of despair with confident pronouncements about “reimagining how we govern [in order to] . . . be more innovative, legitimate, and effective in the digital era.”

Solving Public Problems is also an impressive corrective to the long reign of governance models that deified markets and governing elites. Denigrating citizens as “ignorant” and “primitive,” Joseph Schumpeter, writing in the 1930s and 1940s, lauded governing elites and reduced citizens to deciding the deciders and then returning home until the next election. Indeed, some advocates for elite governance push for restricting voting to citizens who pass a test based on their knowledge and competence in public affairs—overlooking the case for applying the same test to candidates for office.

Noveck grounds her, at times, effervescent chronicling of HCD with a rotating cast of imaginative teams of “public entrepreneurs” and “service designers” from around the world. She spotlights the curative powers of these entrepreneurs, who “talk, empathize, and ideally . . . collaborate with the public they are trying to assist.” In Australia, the government has teamed up with Google to sponsor Sydney University of Technology (UTS) to remove arsenic from drinking water. Meanwhile, a former government official in India set up the Open Source Pharma Foundation to use crowdsourcing to pinpoint new tuberculosis treatments. An official in Louisville city government established AIR Louisville with a local university and hundreds in the community to track the sources of respiratory illness. The Economic Development Authority in New Jersey hit the pause button before doling out loans during the COVID crisis to pinpoint community needs.

Noveck’s focus on delivering targeted, tangible improvements is notable and welcome. Yet she overstates their societal significance and falls back on the same elitist assertions that she claims to reject. She seems unaware that her repeated claims to “elevate evidence over politics” and embrace a model of governance that is “not political [and] not about selecting from among particular ideologies and policies” regurgitates the tired anti-politics screed of prior governance models.

Capturing a common theme in Solving Public Problems and the technocratic and privatization models, Alan Blinder reduces the ills of American policymaking to “governing . . . becoming too political.” Echoing Noveck, Blinder reduces politics to policymakers being “tied up in partisan and procedural knots . . . [and] excessively beholden to those with political clout.” Even as the Fed set loose the destructive forces that demolished the global economy, Blinder cluelessly praised the Federal Reserve as an “outstanding example of technocratic policy making [whose] star is shining as never before [by making] . . . policymaking . . . less political and . . . taking more policy decisions out of the realm of politics.”

Although you may find yourself nodding along at what seems like a reprieve from Washington combat, Noveck’s analysis suffers from fundamental flaws.

Let’s start with deliberation. “The trouble,” Hannah Arendt reasons, “is that factual truth precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.” Arendt goes on to belittle assertions of truth as being in themselves political moves because they are “necessarily domineering [and] they don’t take into account other people’s opinions.”

Noveck’s part in precluding political debate is to choke the scope of public problems. In a time when America is alive with debate over longstanding inequalities and Dickensian conditions for Black, brown, and indigenous people, she touts “innovations” like reducing air pollution, adding trees to blighted neighborhoods, and reducing sugary foods that are well-known in environmental and public health circles as sources of ill health. These are all worthwhile, though they fall well short of the institutional change needed to finally tackle racial disparities in gaining access to capital and home mortgages, reversing the Third World circumstances in communities of color and poverty, and reconstructing public safety, among other challenges facing the country.

Noveck imagines herself as “reviving participatory democracy” but nullifies one of the central tenets of participationists over the past half century—uncontained and searching debate. Instead, the suffocating methodology of her “human-centered design” is biased against the perspectives and interests of diverse and inclusive communities. “Big data” and “data analytic thinking” are consistently offered as the primary source for assessing the public need.

Noveck’s misguided effort to save public problem solving from the irrationalities of politics is impossible. After all, deciding which data are “important” versus which to discard is determined by contending interests and claims.

Noveck, the global guardians she lauds, and their wealthy benefactors are all packing preferences and biases that compromise claims of value neutrality.

Noveck’s effort to save public problem-solving from the irrationalities of politics is impossible. “Big Data” doesn’t speak and is not above or outside the clash of interests. Generations of research demonstrates that the analysis and framing of data is one of the most potent means to advantage particular interests. The cocooning of problem-solving within the work of deciphering big data could become a means for bypassing today’s social disruption and insistence on re-examining policies that perpetuate inequality.

Noveck’s blindness to bias and perspective shines through in her embrace of the discredited “both parties are at fault” trope. Ample empirical research demonstrates that the Republican Party has become radicalized and devoted to promoting the narrow interests of its allies in a way that has not happened to the more divided and diverse Democratic Party. No bother for Noveck. She stumbles over herself with the banal observation that “conservatives have a point about excessive bureaucracy” as if they had not propelled the military industrial complex that contributes to Republican candidates, the private colleges that prey upon veterans with little benefit, and delivered irresponsibly bloated tax cuts to the already super rich.

Noveck did confirm one of my hypotheses: For all the talk of post-Trump and post-COVID transformation, otherwise intelligent books still fail to wrestle with the one-sided assertions of power in public communications, economic relationships, and racial disparities. In Solving Public Problems, people are still but free-floating isolates distinguished by their brains and techniques. With “the right design” and training for collaboration, we are assured that “equitable problem solving” is at hand. Count me as skeptical.

The gap between the rich and everyone else has skyrocketed since the 1970s. The take of the richest 0.1 percent is nearly 200 times greater than the bottom 90 percent. For Blacks, their economic well-being is comparable to their standing in 1979, with Black men earning 31 percent less on average than whites. White households own more than 11 times the net worth of Black families, and this gap has persisted for nearly six decades. Noveck’s response? She describes the disparities as “unnecessary income inequality,” as if this were an oversight rather than the product of policy decisions and generations of neglect and lack of interest. She castigates privatizers for the “belief that markets . . . will solve societal problems” but shies away from projects that challenge economic distributions or set loose forces that will do so over time.

What’s missing? Noveck—along with prior governance cheerleaders—misses the defining feature of politics: the struggle for resources, authority, and meaning. Steven Lukes’s iconic “three faces of power” distills the deployment of power we see (tax cuts for the already fabulously wealthy), the power that suffocates issues “unsafe” to the most advantaged (single-payer health reform), and the recurrent experiences of powerlessness that induces the marginalized to embrace the prevailing values (hyper capitalism is the only option) and an acceptance of their dire circumstances.

There is no dispute that representative government is flawed and that the organizational combat favors the most affluent. Yet citizens have used their social rights to leverage government to topple structures of power. The civil rights movement wielded the courts, elections, and allies in government to topple legalized forms of discrimination and violence. Generations organized to pass Social Security to slash poverty among seniors and bring health care to them through Medicare. The Affordable Care Act has precipitated ten years of ferocious and ongoing struggle, and yet it has extended medical care to tens of millions of people and threatened previously dominant stakeholders. The 2020 elections are translating into another burst of health coverage to more than 10 million Americans who had previously weathered heightened illness and premature death.

Is Noveck’s broader argument pointing the way to fairer life conditions, or is it seducing the well-off into believing that altering current power structures is unnecessary if they properly analyzed big data to find non-threatening steps? Within the loops of process that define HCD, are community organizers working to challenge disparities an unwanted nuisance, or a sign of participatory revival? What we need—and what I hoped Noveck would take on—is a true collaboration of organized communities of the marginalized with decision-makers to alter, over time, the structures of inequality.

Today’s problems are rooted in the organization of our society and government. Big data and sophisticated information technology may bring relief to some. But generational, transformative solutions require a new political architecture. And that battle has just begun.

Read more about GovernmentPublic Policy

Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Professor and Mondale Chair at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. His Democracy Under Fire: Donald Trump and the Breaking of American History will be published in March 2022 by Oxford University Press.

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