Optics and the Suppression of Innovation

One of the more pernicious, and also subtler, difficulties of governance is something I’ll call the tyranny of optics. Across the organizational spectrum, you find systems that are designed to appear transparent, fair, and free of conflicts of interest. Yet all too often, the result is gridlock and bad outcomes for the honest actors, while actual corruption is only pushed deeper underground. It’s the ultimate bitter irony: instead of functional compromise, you get institutionalized disaster.

The legacy government acquisitions system is a perfect example. The driving force is typically not a desired outcome, but rather a long list of requirements established to pass the eye test. The unintended consequences of these requirements, combined with their tendency to stifle innovation, result in the worst of all possible worlds - for the mission, the taxpayer, and the many people doing their best to both produce and acquire high-quality technology.

One of the greatest pitfalls is contracting on a cost-plus basis. This is largely a function of optics, as well as the inherent difficulty of placing value on high-tech innovation (and the age-old confusion of cost with value). The problem is that a fixed profit margin means you can only make money by increasing revenue – there’s no incentive to increase efficiency, even though efficiency is the whole basis of Moore’s Law. In essence, you substitute accounting for accountability, and the effect is that the true value of technology, and the true potential for innovation, are obscured by the very mechanism meant to ensure transparency. It’s also worth emphasizing that for the vendor, it’s about simple math, not corruption. When you can only make money on the top line, a rational actor has no choice but to conform or find a different business.

Furthermore, the system is designed to evaluate the surface qualifications of a vendor to perform work at the government’s risk – have they done something like this before for similar clientele? When building massive hardware investments such as aircraft, this might seem like a reasonable question (though the success of SpaceX has chipped away significantly at the conventional wisdom). When applied to information technology, it’s much more obvious what an arbitrary standard this is - imagine if Larry Page and Sergey Brin had been subjected to these considerations when they were raising capital. The consequence is that the number of “qualified” contenders remains flat over time. This, in turn, creates in an anti-competitive vicious cycle where the presumed ability to deliver is based on perceived qualifications, rather than those qualifications being based on the actual ability to deliver.

Of course, technology projects fail all the time – but because optics are paramount, there’s no willingness for the customer or vendor to admit failure. Instead, we keep sinking money into the same projects until any resolution seems palatable, or the original need is forgotten. Paradoxically, the system demands perfection, yet actual failure is shockingly acceptable – so long as the vendors are “qualified”. Because these failures are overseen by familiar faces, the vetting committee still boasts a perfect record. It’s like a dystopian version of Blackstone’s formulation: better ten credentialed companies should fail than one startup. Consequently, no one is willing to take the kind of development risks that could yield transformative discoveries. Failures that amount to sunk costs are acceptable, while the ones that could really teach us something are unthinkable.

A highly respected veteran of Congress and the Executive Branch once told me that one of the more underreported challenges of DC was that killing earmarks only removed much-needed grease from the system, predictably causing the machinery to grind to a halt. Ironically, earmarks connoted a certain honesty because everyone knew what was going on -The practice allowed for plenty of valuable give-and-take - the real problem was that in many cases the optics were just too shaky.

Since the earmark moratorium, we’ve been treated to an endless game of budgetary chicken that has certainly led to worse outcomes for taxpayers than earmarks ever did. Meanwhile, conflicts of interest haven’t gone anywhere – they’ve just reappeared in the form of more insidious slush funds and legislative blackmail techniques. Technology acquisitions and Congressional deal-making might appear to be very different beasts, but in both cases, the substance of compromise and pragmatism has been replaced by the rigid ideology of covering your backside at all costs. When optics are the primary concern, you can’t even have token cooperation, let alone the partnership needed to solve hard problems.

Bill and Melinda Gates’ recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Three Myths on the World’s Poor, exposes the tragic result of focusing on optics above everything else. Only a small percentage of foreign aid is lost to corruption, but that part always receives vastly disproportionate attention. If the absence of any perceived impropriety became the design criteria for providing aid or philanthropy, we’d only hurt the very people who need the most help. As the authors poignantly ask, “Suppose small-scale corruption amounts to a 2% tax on the cost of saving a life. We should try to cut that. But if we can't, should we stop trying to save those lives?”

The tax metaphor also helps to expose the rampant cynicism that preys on optical controversies. Almost no one would consider a small tax, or other nominal costs of doing business, a good reason to abandon an overwhelmingly profitable enterprise. Why should the criteria be impossibly strict when we stand to gain lives as opposed to dollars? Perhaps better than anything else, the humanitarian aid challenge reveals the logical conclusion of elevating optics above everything else: since a perfect solution is impossible, we’re better off doing nothing.

Every election cycle, someone promises to run the government like a business. Setting aside whether this is desirable or feasible, the obvious challenge is that the optics become most restrictive when the government bears the risk (as businesses generally do). Yet vast opportunities exist for government to transfer risk from taxpayers to suppliers. Imagine a marketplace where vendors can only compete if they guarantee an outcome or your money back. Optics would revert to their proper place: still a factor, but far from being the first or only consideration.

By ending the charade of demanding perfection, we can stop wasting time on the fantasy of eliminating risk and instead focus on the real work of managing it. When you practice the art of the possible, paint will inevitably splatter – but to a realist, the result is infinitely more attractive than an ideal that will never be achieved.