Public Policy as a Design Challenge

The goal of government is to maximize quality of life for its citizens. The functional requirements for achieving this are covered pretty well in the Constitution: basically justice, domestic safety and economic opportunity.

Serving those requirements are an infinite variety of potential actions, so it makes sense to prioritize based on return on investment to the nation collectively. This provides the greatest good, for the greatest number, in the shortest time. High-ROI policies should be done immediately, and low-ROI policies should be delayed. Extreme examples:

HIGH ROI – Teach people to read, write, and use the Internet.

LOW OR NEGATIVE ROI – Pay farmers not to grow things.

The top priority should be for policies that simultaneously decrease spending and increase quality of life. The number of such options is surprisingly large. To name just a few:

  • All government document filing should be via Web browser, with no surcharge. This by itself could save a double-digit percentage of all government spending, through decreased staffing. For example, to renew your driver’s license in California, currently the fee is higher over the Internet than in person, even though the latter service costs 10 times more to provide. The latter service should cease to exist — all renewals should be web-based. This should also be true for filing court documents, paying property taxes, and a thousand other government interactions. Billions of hours are wasted on both sides, at public expense, by making you write something down on paper, deliver it to a live person in an office, and having them transcribe the info into a computer. The money saved should be applied to providing public Web access at libraries and government offices, and to educating everyone in how to conduct such business over the Web — a very high-ROI use of funds.
  • Phase out services provided in non-English languages. Not that English is superior — on the contrary, Spanish is objectively better, as it’s more grammatically consistent, easier to learn, and easier to pronounce. (Bonus: it’s also better for poetry, because so many words rhyme.) No, the reason is simply that standardization yields huge return on investment, and most people here already speak it. Nearly all other large nations with diverse linguistic heritage — India, Philippines, Indonesia, and many countries in Africa — standardize on a single language for government and commerce. Not to do so here means that we pay money to decrease our own economic output, which is, to be succinct, crazy. The money saved should be applied to providing free English lessons to anyone who can prove legal U.S. resident status — again, a very high-ROI use of funds.
  • Derive military vehicles from standard commercial platforms. Currently, army jeeps and trucks are developed as they were in World War II — purely to “effectiveness” specifications, with little regard for return on investment. As a result, in 90% of real-world applications, a Humvee provides less utility than a loaded Chevy Suburban, but costs three times as much because it is produced in low volume. Simply armoring a Suburban saves money, increases reliability, and lets soldiers travel in plush leather comfort. Kidding about the leather.

The point here is that we are missing obvious opportunities to improve output, benefiting the lives of all Americans, for free or even negative cost.

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