What Government Can and Should Learn From Hacker Culture

in The Atlantic: “Can the open-source model work for federal government? Not in every way—for security purposes, the government’s inner workings will never be completely open to the public. Even in the inner workings of government, fears of triggering the next Wikileaks or Snowden scandal may scare officials away from being more open with one another. While not every area of government can be more open, there are a few areas ripe for change.

Perhaps the most glaring need for an open-source approach is in information sharing. Today, among and within several federal agencies, a culture of reflexive and unnecessary information withholding prevails. This knee-jerk secrecy can backfire with fatal consequences, as seen in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, the 9/11 attacks, and the Boston Marathon bombings. What’s most troubling is that decades after the dangers of information-sharing were identified, the problem persists.
What’s preventing reform? The answer starts with the government’s hierarchical structure—though an information-is-power mentality and “need to know” Cold War-era culture contribute too. To improve the practice of information sharing, government needs to change the structure of information sharing. Specifically, it needs to flatten the hierarchy.
Former Obama Administration regulation czar Cass Sunstein’s “nudge” approach shows how this could work. In his book Simpler: The Future of Government, he describes how making even small changes to an environment can affect significant changes in behavior. While Sunstein focuses on regulations, the broader lesson is clear: Change the environment to encourage better behavior and people tend to exhibit better behavior. Without such strict adherence to the many tiers of the hierarchy, those working within it could be nudged towards, rather than fight to, share information.
One example of where this worked is in with the State Department’s annual Religious Engagement Report (RER). In 2011, the office in charge of the RER decided that instead of having every embassy submit their data via email, they would post it on a secure wiki. On the surface, this was a decision to change an information-sharing procedure. But it also changed the information-sharing culture. Instead of sharing information only along the supervisor-subordinate axis, it created a norm of sharing laterally, among colleagues.
Another advantage to flattening information-sharing hierarchies is that it reduces the risk of creating “single points of failure,” to quote technology scholar Beth Noveck. The massive amounts of data now available to us may need massive amounts of eyeballs in order to spot patterns of problems—small pools of supervisors atop the hierarchy cannot be expected to shoulder those burdens alone. And while having the right tech tools to share information is part of the solution—as the wiki made it possible for the RER—it’s not enough. Leadership must also create a culture that nudges their staff to use these tools, even if that means relinquishing a degree of their own power.
Finally, a more open work culture would help connect interested parties across government to let them share the hard work of bringing new ideas to fruition. Government is filled with examples of interesting new projects that stall in their infancy. Creating a large pool of collaborators dedicated to a project increases the likelihood that when one torchbearer burns out, others in the agency will pick up for them.
When Linus Torvalds released Linux, it was considered, in Raymond’s words, “subversive” and “a distinct shock.” Could the federal government withstand such a shock?
Evidence suggests it can—and the transformation is already happening in small ways. One of the winners of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovations in Government award is State’s Consular Team India (CTI), which won for joining their embassy and four consular posts—each of which used to have its own distinct set of procedures-into a single, more effective unit who could deliver standardized services. As CTI describes it, “this is no top-down bureaucracy” but shares “a common base of information and shared responsibilities.” They flattened the hierarchy, and not only lived, but thrived.”