Could Paul Graham Fix Government?

Y Combinator
Y Combinator

What can government learn from the recent history of tech startups?

In 2001-2, company incubators/accelerators nearly became extinct after the market collapsed and the internet industry experienced a malaise. Ten years later, thousands of proto-company organizations have opened around the world. Mostly, they owe their existence to YCombinator, the company behind the founder-friendly blueprint that mentors entrepreneurs at scale and has given birth to over 1000 companies.

YCombinator founder and intellectual leader Paul Graham’s essays sharply focus on embryonic organizations and how they begin the journey to success. Central themes emerge. Consider rule 5 from Graham’s Startups in 13 Sentences:

Better to make a few people love you than a lot ambivalent.

Starting with a narrow set of customers has eluded government information technology efforts. The federal government finds it impossible to think small, makes it difficult for new entrants to bid on projects, and remains mired in development processes that are decades old, during an era of immense agility in the information technology industries.

The vast majority of government change appears to be massive in scope and doubtful in outcome. The failed launch of the Affordable Care Act website is obvious fodder for those who see the government as technologically and bureaucratically inept. However, this is the same government that has stored citizens’ phone records for the past decade and spied on a variety of foreign officials. What accounts for the successes and failures?

The Healthcare.gov effort ignored Graham’s rules. It focused on the market, not the individual customers. The NSA probably did not start its surveillance project with the entire country as the use case. Likely, it grew from a much smaller idea.

Outside of government, technology problem solving has changed. It’s decentralized not monolithic. Open Government practitioners are advancing awareness of markets and problems, but it will be small experimental products that solve specific customer issues that make the real difference in improving governance.

The most important job in government today: Product Manager