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Let's imagine Steve Jobs is President of the United States

How can our experiences with the Internet and consumer tech apply to government transformation?

A version of this post originally appeared on Francis J. Pedraza’s blog. It’s republished with permission.

It’s time for a new social contract.

Can you remember the last time government made you happy?

Thought not.

Can you remember the last time government made you angry or sad?

Oh, your last pay check.

Where’s all that money going? When will you ever see a return on that investment?

Every day, hundreds of millions use Google search. Ever reflect on this? An immense volume of digital information, organized and made “universally accessible and useful” through a single search bar. Count up the words on Google’s homepage: only 30. And yet it opens the whole world for us – a global portal to expanding knowledge, friends, maps, videos, news, mail, images, books, music and more. And it’s free.

Look, if two Stanford students managed to create something so useful in just 13 years, how come our nation can’t get its house in order? Go to the government’s website, usa.gov, or look at ny.gov, which is even worse.

Every time I take the NYC subway, I’m amazed by the impression that everyone’s got a high-tech device. It defies stereotypes – young, old, rich, poor – we’ve nearly all managed to get our hands on an iPod, MacBook, Droid, or whatever. It’s ubiquitous. Ten years ago, no-way. What that tells me as a casual observer is that our culture has learned a new language.

The phenomenon has reached an exciting stage: it’s both branching out and converging, all at once. We’re finding new applications for technology, from an infant swiping ABCs on an iPad, to an iPhone being adopted as a medical tool by doctors in Africa. The flip side is that this proliferation of diverse applications is being consolidated onto just a handful of devices. Consumer products, paired with the Internet, have become an intuitive interface for interacting with all aspects of life.

How might we tap into these suggestive lessons from daily experience with the Internet and consumer technology to transform government?

Let’s imagine Steve Jobs as President of the United States

Three things would change. I’d bet a round of drinks he would …

1. Frame everything around the user experience.

Citizens are users, and the government delivers services. Guess what? Since World War II, the basic framework of our bureaucracy hasn’t changed, just grown on rotting foundations. Now it’s a tangled, clumsy, wobbling mass of weeds. President Jobs would restore a sense of purpose by reorienting the whole thing around people. Human-centered government begins with insisting on only releasing services that people will be irresistibly drawn to use and love. To get there, begin with keen observation. Look for super-normal actions and listen to what people don’t say; qualitative insights into people’s everyday lives give us the best clues to their needs and design solutions.

2. Less is more.

President Jobs would be good at saying “no.” The biggest priority is restoring priorities, the government tries to do too much. There are too many programs competing for budget and attention. Few have done users much good so far. Few are worth putting our nation in debt to have. By focusing on one big opportunity at a time, we’ll discover government’s competitive advantage. There are only a very few things the private sector can’t do better than the public, so that’s what all the tax dollars should go toward. Simple is best.

3. Design for sustainable innovation.

Society changes dynamically, so what’s up with static government? It responds so slowly, even in crisis – and that’s got to change. Design thinkers spend lots of time perfecting the innovation process. It’s an art, and it takes leaders who can get other people to embrace creative culture. Crowd-sourcing splits the atom. It releases innovation at scale. That’s why Facebook, Apple, and Google have been so successful. They’ve built stages for the rest of the world to play on. It’s all about designing a structured platform that provides an irresistible opportunity to the worldwide creative community to develop further.

For example, what if the IRS ran a competition based on this question: How might we simplify the tax code from 44,000 pages to 10 pages or less? Let the people vote on a mini-site. Winning submissions get voted on in Congress and the winner gets to meet the President. Perhaps one day soon, we could be offered a choice of tax systems – the old one, or the new design!

As you can see, President Jobs would be so unpopular in DC. A bureaucrat’s worst nightmare: playing hack-and-slash with programs and departments, eliminating waste and fixing strategic mis-allocations of the people’s resources. With federal employees getting laid off, congressmen losing pet projects, and lobbyists losing their client’s pet privileges and special deals, there would be a bi-partisan outcry.

No big deal, because a great communicator would know how to win the crowd and sell the vision. The State of the Union address, with all its obsolete television-era pomp and circumstance, would be replaced by a quarterly keynote presentation. President Jobs would never, ever come empty-handed. Empty rhetoric isn’t his thing. He’s always got a fundamental innovation to unveil or big news to announce, and he never leaves without leaving an extra surprise. Rumor has it that this time, it’s a usa.gov redesign and a dot.gov iPhone App launch.

Using technology as a frame of reference, you may see that there’s an amazing amount of potential for us to transform government. Design thinking transcends party lines, old dogmas, and entrenched interest groups. Things may look pretty glum now, but this is America, and there’s always a way. I am optimistic, because sooner or later, the same forces that have touched all of our lives through consumer markets and the Internet will give us Government 2.0.

Our society is waiting, and our political landscape is ripe, for a political figure to speak the new language. The premises outlined above form the basis of a platform for a small, focused, innovative, and human-centered government.

It’s time for a new social contract. Demand it.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/untereinerL Laurent

    Wait until the version 2, the one will not have all implemented ! ;-)

  • Canuck

    Undet Jobs, I’m imagining a country that’s smug, elitist, elitist, overpriced, underpowered, anticompetitive, and incompatible with anyone else.

    Oh, wait – is he already president, then?

  • http://blog.strawjackal.org Avner

    I’m not going to go into the blind-spot it seems you have regarding government’s role as provider of infrastructure and basic services (those tax dollars are being used by you every day, in a thousand different ways) and stick specifically to your specific points, especially regarding this “less is more” bulletpoint #2.

    You seem to be projecting onto Jobs your own ideals, rather than anything Apple is doing. Apple believes in significant taxation (a flat 30%). It believes in strict regulation of content, both of style and of content. It believes in innovation within a predefined framework. I’m not arguing your basic premise here, just the specious reasoning tying it to Steve Jobs.

  • NNT

    OMG what a nightmare! The world had really enough dictatorships and their cruel implications for the people. And it’s really obvious that Mr. Jobs dictates everything in the entire Apple eco system (should I say ego system?) – from AppStore censorship to programming language, everything is controlled and not free.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/kenahoo Ken Williams

    Gee, why stop at president? How about “Let’s imagine Steve Jobs is God”?

  • Josh

    If Steve Jobs was the President then world order would exist. If the peeps at google were President then there would be anarchy ;)

  • http://www.pcw.gr Lambros Georgogalas

    I agree with Anver that depicting Steve Jobs as the perfect example of anti-bureaucrat and anti-conformist contradicts with many of Apple’s practises and policies. Besides, since when “He’s always got a fundamental innovation to unveil or big news to announce, and he never leaves without leaving an extra surprise.”? Was the “magic” magnetic cover for the iPad 2 the tremendous innovation everybody was waiting, breathless, for?

  • Richard M

    You assume that government is there as a “service business” for each of us individually. While I have no problem with, say, streamlining the tax code (but good luck with that), government is not our full-service butler. It expends at least as many resources (probably more) in preventing us from doing stuff as in enabling us to do them— stuff like crime and fraud.

  • monopole

    That’s going to give me nightmares for years to come. Jobs would make Nixon look like Pericles.

    Jobs is a secretive monomaniacal control freak with a severe case of narcissistic personality disorder and a very good propaganda apparatus. This is a guy who sues fans over leaks. He sends police after reporters for having an Phone4 prototype. He not only bans books critical of him but bans publishers of those books (remember the “iCon” debacle). He builds vertical monopolies with locked down systems.

    Best case, we’d end up with Singapore, great user experience, as long as you don’t even think about politics and pay the government whatever cut they want.

  • B

    Countries are not companies. People who compare the president to a CEO have not taken the leap to the next level of their thought experiment where they would immediately realize that no company consumes most of its own products like a country does. Because of this consumption pattern, if a country tried to minimize its labor costs like a company, there would be horrible consequences stemming from unemployment and fallow resources.

    Avner is right, you’re ignoring essentially everything the government does provide and then making sweeping generalizations by comparing a search algorithm with providing for citizens without needlessly restricting resource mobility.

    Here’s hoping that someone like you is never actually in a position of power in ANY governing body.

  • http://jimmytidey.co.uk Jimmy Tidey

    I don’t normally bother to post comments about things I don’t like, but this is quite far below Radar’s normal standards.

    To think that copying and pasting a computer manufacturer’s business plan into government policy implies an over-inflated opinion of Steve Jobs and a lack of appreciation of the complexity government.

    I’m sorry, I can’t see what this adds.

  • Jon

    I find it funny that one of your points is about crowd sourcing, and you point to Facebook and Apple as two of your examples. When is the last time you saw either of these companies crowdsource anything? Apple maintains extremely rigorous top down control of its business. Every account I’ve ever heard of its structure has innovation flowing down from Jobs, rather than up from the employees. Facebook is legendary for making changes without any input or concern for its users, and it is run by a similar strong-handed visionary. You shouldn’t extrapolate the virtues of individual companies from the virtues of Silicon Valley as a whole. Every corporation runs a little differently, to meet the needs of the market it targets and the work demanded of it. As, come to think of it, does the government. Perhaps there’s a reason for that.

  • Snafu

    Huxley’s “Brave New World”, anyone? iSoma.

  • John Dingler

    I believe that the “Human-centered government begins with insisting on only releasing services that people will be irresistibly drawn to use and love” premise is wrong; There are also people in need, not in merely drawn to use or love them.

    For example, a homeless person put on the street or in the riverbed by Rightwinger President Bush as well as by Rightwing Democrats would need some basic services such as medical, food, or dental work. These are not based on love or be irresistibly drawn to them. I know. I pass these indigents daily on my bike ride along SART.

    Therefore, Jobs as you characterize him and his MO would likely not solve this part of the government’s function.

  • Derek

    I think you’re also confused about what the responsibilities of the President are versus the responsibilities of Congress. “Simplify the tax” code is not something Congress, not the President would do, although he or she might be an advocate for doing it.

  • http://blog.monstuff.com Julien Couvreur

    The big difference between Apple and government is that Apple funds itself with voluntary contribution of willing buyers, whereas the government is a monopoly with the unique power of taxation. That means government has unavoidable differences in incentives.

    Two other things are important to realize in this discussion:
    1) government is composed two groups, more-or-less permanent bureaucrats vs. elected officials. Even the bureaucrats have significant discretionary and regulatory power and also influence.
    2) elected officials, like Steve Jobs, are the face of government, but unlike Steve Jobs they sell promises (rather than products and services). In politics, there is only pre-order.

    My conclusion is that in many things and in particular in the long-term and politics the system is more important than the man.

  • Sam Penrose

    Add me to those surprised to see the government-should-be-like-business fallacy (aka “I’ve done well in tech during Moore’s Law’s heyday; I should rule the world”) appearing on oreilly.com. You mostly know better; this is I hope just a lapse.

  • http://BillLawrenceOnline.com Bill Lawrence

    Less is more.

    Looks like Jobs & Jefferson would think along the same lines.

    Erase the government programs enacted by LBJ, Nixon, Carter, the Bushes & Obama and you’d get the government that you think Jobs would create.

  • http://www.advancedwebads.com/sc/164 Randy Addison

    If Steve Jobs will be the president of the United States, then there will be free Apple iPad 2 for every student in the country! lol iPhone 5′s for people who are employees. Apple stickers for those who one Androids. lol

  • http://www.plasticsturgeon.com Zach

    Maybe if Steve Jobs were the legislative branch. Yeah. Maybe if he was the entire house of representatives and the senate as well.
    Do you even know what the president does? Make laws? no. Sign them? yes.
    If ONE person were the legislative branch – well I think this country was founded on the principle that no one person should ever have the right to make laws. Even Steve Jobs.

  • John

    Are we taking his current health into consideration? Perhaps another McCain?