Technical ignorance is not leadership

There is a peculiar pattern that I have noticed among elites in the United States outside Silicon Valley, which is the almost boastful ignorance of technology. As my colleague Jon Shieber pointed out today, you can see that ignorance among congressmen throughout the whole Facebook/Cambridge Analytica saga. Our president has rarely sent an email, and seems to confine his mobile phone activities to Twitter. One senior policymaker told me a few months ago that she doesn’t know how to turn on her computer.

Such a pattern is hardly unique to politics though. Hang out with enough business executives, lawyers, doctors, or consultants, and you will hear the inevitable “I don’t really do the computer,” with an air of detached disdain.

Yet it isn’t just the technical challenges that this class avoids, but anything to do with implementation in general. In the policy world, wonks spend decades debating the finer points of healthcare and social spending, only to be wholly ignorant at how their decisions are actually implemented into code. There is an elitism in policy between those who make the decisions and those who implement them, just as much as there is a social distinction between corporate executives and the people who have to carry out their directives.

In many ways, this disdain for the technical mirrors the disdain for math, where the phrase “I’m not a math person” has become sufficiently ubiquitous in the U.S. as to be covered regularly in the press. Being bad at math is a way to signal that someone isn’t one of the worker bees who actually have to care about calculations — they just read the reports prepared by others.

Yet, that ignorance of technology is increasingly untenable. Decisions are only as good as the implementation that results. Marketing isn’t a plan, it’s a system of feedback loops from the market that need to be adjusted in real-time. It’s one thing for politicians to sign a bill into law, but another to ensure that the bill’s intentions are actually encoded into the software that powers government.

The gap between decision and implementations was at the core of a conversation I had this past week with Jennifer Pahlka, who founded and heads Code for America, a nonprofit whose mission is to bridge the divide between government and technologists.

To show how far a policy and its implementation can be, she pointed me to Proposition 47 in California. That initiative, which was passed by voters in 2014, was designed to allow individuals to retroactively expunge or reclassify certain nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, allowing individuals to become eligible again to work, vote, and receive some government benefits.

Yet, several years after the approval of Prop 47, a single digit percentage of eligible people have taken advantage of the program. The reason is classic government: incredibly convoluted paperwork, which is exponentially worse since every one of California’s 58 counties has to implement the program independently. “If you are a voter and you voted for a specific referendum,” Palhka explained, then you expect a certain outcome. But, “if none of the benefits that you expected to change” materialized, then cynicism mounts quickly.

To help bridge the gap, Code for America launched Clear My Record, a service designed to automate many of the steps involved in the Prop 47 process and make it more accessible. It’s just one of a bunch of services that the group has launched to improve government services ranging from food assistance through GetCalFresh to improving case manager communication through ClientComm.

Palhka’s mission isn’t to just offer point solutions for specific government programs, but to completely overhaul the latent anti-tech culture of government officials. “Digital competence is core to successful government,” she explained, and yet, “If you are a powerful person, you don’t have to understand how the digital world works … but what we are saying is that you do have to care.” Her goal is straightforward: “how do you get policy, operations, and tech to all work together?”

While Palhka and her organization focuses on the public sector, their framework is perhaps even more important to the private sector. There isn’t a company today that can survive without technical leadership in the C-suite, and yet, we still see an astonishing lack of awareness about the internet and its potential from corporate executives. Software increasingly intermediates all relationships with customers, whether though digital commerce or enterprise services. If the software is bad, no amount of decision-making in a mahogany-paneled board room is going to change it.

The good news is that ignorance has an easy solution: education. The computer is not some mystery box. It’s well-documented, and all kinds of resources are available to learn how they work and how to think about their capabilities and nuances. If someone can run a multinational company, they can probably ask smart questions about algorithms or machine learning even if they don’t realistically implement the linear algebra themselves.

CEOs, senators, and other leaders are synthesizers — they rely on staff to handle the details so they can focus on strategy. We would never trust a CEO who brushed off an accountant by saying “I don’t do cash flows,” and we shouldn’t trust a CEO who doesn’t understand how the internet works. Changing times require adaptable leaders, and today those leaders need tech literacy just as much as our grade-school children do. It’s the only way leadership can move forward today.