COLUMN - For government, it is not just size that matters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - One of today’s major debates is how big government should be. Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Our battle over the size of the state overlooks a problem that is just as important and that may be easier to muster the collective will to resolve: how effective government is, regardless of its scale.

After all, even in this age of polarized politics, there is one thing right and left agree on: Government needs to get better. Diana Farrell, an economist who recently returned to the consulting firm McKinsey after a two-year stint in the White House, thinks smart pragmatists should seize this common ground.

“We see a massive opportunity in what is a meaningful part of GDP to make it work better,” Farrell, who leads the new McKinsey Center for Government, told me. “Whether you believe government should be 20 percent or 80 percent of GDP is a political choice. But once that has been decided, then assuring that that part which is government works - that can be apolitical, that can be managerial. That is what we are trying to do.”

One of the big shortcomings of government today is how clumsily it responds to the desires of its citizens. This is the 21st-century paradox: Even as political democracy has become the intellectual default mode for much of the world, the private sector usually trumps the public one when it comes to accommodating consumer choice. If you doubt that assertion, consider this question: Who offers you a better, cheaper service - Google or your post office?

James S. Fishkin is a communications professor at Stanford University and a contributor to a volume of essays on how to fix the state that Farrell’s center is publishing next week. In his piece, Fishkin suggests one way to give citizens a stronger voice. He argues that neither opinion polls nor town halls do the trick. Polls are too superficial - replies are based on respondents’ biases and the latest sound bites they have heard, rather than a careful study of the often-complex issues governments must decide. Town halls and other public forums do provide an arena for more nuanced debate, but they are subject to capture by those whose convictions are most intense.

Fishkin believes a better option is a technique he calls deliberative polling, a modern spin on Athenian democracy. Deliberative polling takes a representative sample of citizens and gives them the time, information and structure to learn about complicated problems. According to Mr. Fishkin, this process has been used about 70 times in 18 countries. Texas applied it in the 1990s to give the public a say in the use of renewable energy by regulated utilities; Zeguo township, in the Chinese city of Wenling, has used it to prioritize municipal infrastructure projects. (Thus consulted, the Chinese opted for clean water ahead of a fancy public square, to the surprise of their officials.)

The McKinsey collection is bursting with other good ideas: Peter Ho, formerly the top civil servant in Singapore, describes his country’s thoughtful techniques for coping with an increasingly unpredictable and complex world; Mohamed Ibrahim, the African cellphone mogul, identifies a lack of good data as the biggest obstacle to improving governance in his home continent; Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, a London-based nonprofit, sees the sorting of different types of garbage that most of us now do in our own kitchens as the herald of a new and needed era of greater citizen engagement with the services the state provides.

The unifying idea is that we should focus on making government smarter, not arguing over whether it is too big or too small. The tactical elegance of this approach is admirable: In an age of ideological deadlock, it makes sense to find a way to sidestep that fight altogether. Even more compelling is the insistence that the state should be overhauled with the same rigor the private sector applies to efficiency and customer satisfaction. That rallying cry is long overdue.

But the appeal of this technocratic recipe is also its limitation. First, one small caution. Data and metrics are wonderful tools, but private-sector wonks who believe that their spreadsheets are the secret to fixing the government would do well to remember that the greatest economic disaster of our time was caused by the most data-oriented sector of society. Wall Street didn’t fail because it had too few quants, but because it had too many.

The larger caveat is that Farrell’s quest for apolitical improvements in government goes only so far. The truth, as Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out in the most important essay in this collection, is that governing is an innately political act. It is absurd to campaign narrowly for a more efficient state while setting aside debates about what that state is for; some of the most evil governments in history - Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union - were made worse by their efficiency, not better.

All of us can agree that we want government to work as well as possible, and we should all applaud efforts to improve it. But there is no escaping the divisive and essential questions: What is the purpose of the state and whom does it serve?

Chrystia Freeland is the editor of Thomson Reuters Digital. Prior, she was U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times. Before that, Freeland was deputy editor, Financial Times, in London, editor of the FT’s Weekend edition, editor of, UK News editor, Moscow bureau chief and Eastern Europe correspondent. From 1999 to 2001, Freeland served for two years as deputy editor of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. Freeland began her career working as a stringer in Ukraine, writing for the FT, The Washington Post and The Economist. Editing by Jonathan Oatis