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Communication Technology

Obamacare and the ‘good governance standards shuffle’

Brian Levy's picture

This is the third post in a three-part series from Brian Levy on the manner in which the media, activists and politicians talk about the role of government. This post is about Obamacare. It’s hardly news anymore, I know. But my focus is less on the details of America’s ongoing efforts to reform its health sector, than on the way the discourse has played out – making the post  another in my series on the dysfunctional ways in which we speak about government.

Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White HouseIn an earlier post, I explored Great Gatsby-style carelessness. This time, I want to introduce a dance move —  the ‘good governance high standards shuffle’, a display of exuberant glee (disguised as disappointment) whenever the real world intrudes, and the outcome of one or another public initiative  is less than perfect.

In the same way that it can be difficult to distinguish between real tears of disappointment, and malicious glee hiding behind crocodile tears, sometimes the ‘high standards shuffle’  can be difficult to detect. Sincerity can all too easily get ‘played’ by cynicism in disguise. While some dancers of the standards shuffle are clumsily obvious,  others have the moves down pat — making it hard to tell whether or not one is being played. (And some exponents might even be unaware that they’re doing the standards shuffle.)

Each year, as part of my teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I select a ‘live’ example of the challenges of public management. A few weeks ago, as I described in another post in this series, I used the case of Washington’s Metro to explore with my students at SAIS the costs of careless in our discourse about government. In 2014, my focus was on the  ongoing American debate on health care reform (also known as “Obamacare”). That debate offers a marvelous  opportunity for seeing the high standards shuffle in action – an opportunity that has not diminished with the passage of time.  So: come dance with me……

An exchange in the United States Congress early this past summer illustrates what the clumsy version of the standards shuffle looks like. Here (as reported by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank) is  President Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human services, Sylvia Burwell, being grilled by Sam Johnson, Republican Congressman of Texas:

Why do we so often need to push back against ‘techie triumphalism’?

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

What are the limits of technology?  Are tech experts overreaching when they attempt to 'reinvent' our lives? Suvojit Chattopadhyay explains why power relations and context still matters.

Girls use laptop in Najmi, Muthanna province, IraqHere is Kentaro, on his usual beat:

Talented chefs don’t believe their sauteeing skills entitle them to reimagine Web browsers, but talented technologists feel entitled to reimagine cooking, education and everything else.

And on a more serious note:

It’s a world full of trained engineers — and many college dropouts — who cannot be expected to grasp human dynamics any more than political scientists understand Java code. Many brilliant technology leaders have stories of bullying and isolation in their youths that would leave anyone with abiding skepticism of human groups, institutions, cultures. If family dinners and school lunches were painful for you, “disrupting” eating with a venture-capital-backed protein drink like Soylent can seem like liberation


Indeed, technology has become a kinder, gentler variant of so-called trickle-down economics, in which one gives poor schoolchildren iPads and a pat on the back, without altering the toxicity of their work-starved, father-starved, drug-war-ravaged environment

Needless to say, I agree with the larger point. While it may be unfair to call out the unhappy childhood of some prominent tech leaders, it does partly explain why their ‘abiding skepticism’ of human behaviour leads them to place their trust on machines, rather than humans.

New thinking on digital storytelling

Maya Brahmam's picture

I have been reading with interest some of the questions posed on storytelling inside the World Bank. The recent blog post by Bruce Wydick is a case in point. Reactions ranged from positive to some uneasiness around the idea that we’re using stories to share results, when we’re generally more comfortable with a “Just the facts” approach. One concern seems to be that we might surrender our decision-making to the emotion of a good story versus hard evidence.

In fact, doesn’t the word fabulist mean someone who stretches the truth a bit, by telling stories? I was therefore not so surprised to find storytelling used as an explanation for NBC news anchor Brian Williams’ recent troubles. A Washington Post article about Williams noted, “Former colleagues reveal a man who took such delight in spinning yarns that he could sometimes lose sight of where the truth began and where it ended.”

We have examined brain science and other areas to figure out why stories are so compelling, and I’ve blogged about this in this space before. Storytelling is compelling because it’s memorable, shareable (nice feature in this digital world), and relatable (people respond and retain for longer material with an emotional content).

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

OECD Observer
Don’t forget corruption

“The crisis should not divert attention from the fight against corruption.  Mark Pieth, Chair of the OECD Working Group on Bribery, talks to Lyndon Thompson about the need to keep the ball rolling.

Mark Pieth is the affable, soft-spoken chair of the OECD Working Group on Bribery. He has held the post for more than 20 years, during which time he also served on the committee charged with investigating the Iraq Oil-for- Food Programme and the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, headquartered at the OECD in Paris, and most recently as an advisor on the Integrity Board of the World Bank.”  READ MORE