History Hinders the Future of Public Services

I’m a fan of public services, and it irks me when I hear people complain about their quality.  Not because they’re wrong, but because I imagine that their experiences have been frustrating and lackluster.  It’s a shame as the power of the state to organize and direct collective resources towards our shared vision of the good is tremendous, yet it always seems to fall short of expectations.    While the blame typically falls on public employees or the state itself, there is a deeper seed sprouting these challenges.  Many public services are still operating with a core philosophy stemming from historical time, well-intentioned but ill-equipped to deal with the needs of the present.

History’s Lens

Social services have been a part of the United States for over a century, with attempts to address poverty dating as far back as the 1880s.  The Social Security Act  was passed in 1935 and expanded into direct relief programs such as food stamps, cash benefits, and more.  Presently we offer more than 75 different programs to help assist people in need. In this regard, our democracy has demonstrated itself as a tool of empathy and social good.   Why then, do these programs struggle to provide a premium service? Unpacking this question begins with understanding the time sense of the social services movements.

When the foundational social services programs were developed the most advanced form of production was the mass production of standardized goods and services.   A classic example being Henry Ford’s assembly line. Using low to moderately skilled labor, organizational structures based on hierarchy, and rudimentary machines, our most advanced economic model defined our contextual understanding of the world. Social services were designed to serve as low quality but widely available services that are provided as alternatives to the higher quality options available for purchase through the private sector.   Given the context of the period this method made sense, it ensures that the programs serve as many people as possible as quickly as possible. This philosophy has its merits, it surpasses its limitations of information and communication of the period by casting a wide net. The melding of two innovative practices was an excellent solution at the time of inception but hinders present progress by constraining the narrative about what social services can and should be.
Social programs aren’t the only example of institutional arrangements that are constrained by the ideas of men long dead.  Adam Smith’s economic theory of supply and demand is strongly influenced by Newtonian physics, specifically his third law. “Law III: To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.“  Any time a market fundamentalist talks about how prices will self-correct due to demand they are drawing from theories originated by Issac Newton. Time, however, spares no person or ideas from change. Today we operate under Albert Einstein’s vision of a dynamic space-time, replacing Newton’s static version as the dominant understanding.  Science is open to adapting new truths and rewriting historical arrangements upon their discovery, so why not do the same within society?   

As context driven beings our imagination of structure and the possible is defined by the moment the collective progress of the world at a point in time. We share this with the architects of the past.   Human imagination is potentially infinite while simultaneously constrained by what is right now. In accepting our limitations today, we recognize the inadequacies of the past.    Fortunately, the radical technological, social, and cultural transformation that brings us to this present moment equips us to experiment with alternative arrangements of our public services.

Adapting and Expanding

We can begin by enhancing the quality of services readily available.  The work of organizations like Code For America is an excellent example of how focused funding can support innovation government services.   Integrating new technologies with a user-centric design into existing services such as food and health services gives families in need we can observe real examples of how small investments can dramatically improve the ease and convenience of access.  

Depending on the level of investment we wanted to commit at a federal level we could imagine highly integrated benefits networks expanding across states designed to maximize process efficiencies while always erring on the side of human good.  Machine learning integrations could support continuous improvements through the analysis of existing and future data sets, logistics, deliveries of service, and more. By integrating the most advanced technologies and practices from our knowledge economy into our social programs we can shift direction towards a more effective form of public provision.  

Expanding beyond the horizon of existing programs we open up the discussion for what public services could be.   Given the changing nature of work, it’s necessary to begin to plan services for a different type of human experience.   As machines continue to automate traditional jobs, we will be forced to contend with a new world of precarious employment for much of the labor force.  If we are intent on existing within the historical frameworks of social services, then the future is likely going to be much worse for more people. Alternatively, if we recognize that human imagination and ingenuity are our most productive and powerful resource we give ourselves ground to restructure services to a different end.     No person should have to do the job a machine can do, but we exist in a world of machine doing.  Therefore we must develop new pathways for people to enhance their capabilities.

Public services viewed through the lens of the present and future should facilitate a suite of vital protections for every citizen that is not tied to employment.  What those rights are will be chosen democratically, but I suggest food/water, shelter, healthcare, education, transportation, information, and communication – all of which are an absolute necessity to thrive in the new Knowledge Economy.  Our rights extend beyond our occupation and no shift in technology or techniques should hinder our potential for transformation.

The connection of rights being tied to employment is an ideological relic of the past.  It made perfect sense for a world where many people would enter a manufacturing job with the intention of stable, long-term employment. Present day automation and a system of fragile employment presented under the guise of a “gig economy” illustrate a very different picture of the world today.   One that shows no signs of slowing and could be a massive benefit if directed correctly. Expansion of rights and freedoms through democratically chosen public services is a necessity given all economic and technological trends but remains hindered by the past’s grasp on our understanding of the moment.

We should choose to have the state act as both the bottom and the top for these projects.  At the base level, we provide the necessary services and access to allow everyone to experiment and innovate within life without fear of economic desolation if their efforts do not succeed.  At the top level, we utilize the power of the state to facilitate the most complex projects. One example of such a project could be taken from Jeremy Rifkin who lays out a plan to develop an integrated energy network by retrofitting every building with solar panels, using batteries to store the power, and distributing that energy where needed.  This would create a near-zero marginal cost society, where energy was so plentiful and cheap it would radically redefine our understanding of the world. These types of massive infrastructure projects designed for the collective social benefit best left to state organization, just as the U.S. interstate highway network was in the past.  

Projects that scale between the floor and the ceiling should be left to society to address.  Public service projects could be implemented to equip better and coordinate these ventures with access to the most advanced forms of technology, practice, and collaborative coordination while simultaneously encouraging competition to foster innovation and experimentation within social services.  Legally we could create new arrangements, for example requiring that an organization taking advantage of said services to develop public solutions would be needed to be structured as a non-profit. We could imagine this format, combined with a suite of protections for the floor, increasing competition for new and better ideas more frequently give that the inevitable disruption would not be as damaging to the human participants as it is in present time.  This model allows for more people to have more opportunity to change society for the better.

Structuring public services in the fashion argued above is a direct pathway to increase the organization of society outside of the state.  It recognizes the need for proactive adaptation to an uncertain future while empowering domain professionals to help us experiment with alternative visions of the future of services.  We reject the privatization of public services as the poorly performing substitutes they have always been, understanding that our objective is to democratize society rather than further marketize it.   In doing so, we encourage the organization of more projects in the realm of a shared vision of the good.

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