Digital Governance Theatre

Friday, March 31, 2017

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

A couple of weeks ago an old friend and colleague Richard Smith (Simon Fraser University) reached out and shared an email newsletter written by Venkatesh Rao (@vgr on Twitter) entitled "Software Adoption is Bullshit". The article -- which is chunked out into numbered tweetable tweets and well worth reading -- argues that we are living in an era of digital governance theatre rather than transformation. Here's the relevant snippets:

I have spent a good deal of time in the last decade involved one way or another in enterprise software: helping to build it, helping to sell it, helping to buy it, writing about it, reading about it. The world of enterprise software runs on the doctrinal antithesis to the idea that software is eating the world: the world is adopting software. Specifically through existing organizations adopting it via a controlled, deliberate, strategic process. There is an entire cottage industry -- and I have participated in it more than I like to admit -- devoted to "strategic" thinking about how to "adopt" software and turn it into "competitive advantage" and "digitally transform" the business model. And loudly celebrating supposed "success stories."

This entire cottage industry, I concluded a few years ago, is unadulterated bullshit.

There are only three ways for an organization to relate to software: you're buying it like you buy potatoes, a pure commodity, while being loudly theatrical about it, or you're getting eaten by it, or you've made the only meaningful strategic decision: to jump to the disruptive "eating" side on a particular contest...

29/ ... we've seen 20 years of bullshit "adoption theater" talk on "e-governance" that was really "digital governance potatoes."

30/ Though some of the sustaining innovations on the e-governance S-curve have been massive and huge (NSA surveillance, healthcare.gov, things like India's Aadhar card), they have still been potatoes.

31/ In other words, they are not about strategy or about "digital transformation." They are about doing the same old governance things, the same ways, except with "paperware" in software form.

32/ There have been the same sorts of poster-child "e-governance" stories: wiki constitution efforts in Iceland, e-citizenship in Estonia. Interesting and worth learning from, but fundamentally, theater.

33/ Those are cases of governance adopting potato software rather than software eating governance. We are only just beginning to see what the latter might end up looking like.

34/ So what lessons can you draw from this story? They matter whether or not you're involved in enterprise software. The big lesson is this: don't mistake buying potatoes for software eating you or you doing the eating.

35/ When software eats something, what comes out the other end is deeply, fundamentally transformed...

51/ So why do people indulge in the theater instead of doing the real thing? It's a classic disruption reason: the incumbents don't have any reason to take risks while they have their core markets locked up.

52/ During this period, technology has no strategic value. At best it has marketing value with customers and morale-building value with employees. Neither is strategic or decisive.

53/ You can show-off "innovation" poster children to customers (campaign donors in this case study). "Look at all our cool analytics charts and social media engagement metrics."

54/ For employees (campaign staff), there is an opportunity for live-action roleplaying (LARPing) disruption instead of actually taking the existential risks of disrupting. LARPing disruption is fun.

55/ Don't get me wrong: lots of money can get spent (of dubious value, hence the sub-cottage industry of bullshit "ROI" estimates) and engineers can work hard on hard technology problems.

56/ But without the element of ideological risk -- dropping certain sacred values, adopting previously profane values -- and risking existing value for uncertain lower returns, you're just pretending.

Is he right?

How many of us have spent time building up the importance of digital, helping sell it, helping to implement it, writing about it, reading about it. How many of us are among the cottage industry devoted to 'strategic thinking' about how to 'adopt' digital technology and 'digitally transform' government's business model? How many of us loudly celebrate supposed 'success stories'?

And yet how much of what we have been able to collectively accomplish goes beyond the potato buying paradigm articulated above, how much of it is just LARPing?