The Future of Government: Basic Education and the (limited) role of technology in complex human endeavor

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The Future of Government is an exciting new initiative, a call to action to re-imagine the way in which governments act that will make governments a greater force for good in addressing the many complex challenges people around the world face. 

The call to action encourages a re-consideration of four key questions they pose: What is the government’s role? How can government deliver?  How can government be more productive? and How can government build trust?

For the last eight years I have been the director of a research project, RISE, which focuses on how societies can act to address the learning crisis in basic education that affects many (but not all) countries in the developing world. Basic education is a domain that illustrates the challenges the Future of Government initiative raises, as it illustrates both the successes and failures of business as usual. 

The developing world has had fantastic success in expanding schooling—more and more children are completing more years of formal schooling—and, due to governments around the world taking up the challenge of universalizing access to schooling nearly every child has access to school.

However, in many developing countries the pace of learning, the  skills children acquire per year of schooling, is just too low, and children are ending their schooling experience inadequately prepared for their roles as adults. 

One key message that emerges very clearly from both research on basic education and is highlighted in the Future of Government initiative is that, for a complex human endeavor like creating an effective system of education, the solution will use technology if and where it can help, but we should not expect “technology” to be the solution.

While progress in information technology and computing power creates new possibilities, there are many dangers to a techno-optimism.     

A fundamental fact about recent economic history to keep in mind is that while progress in information technology and in computing power has proceeded at the extraordinary Moore’s Law pace of doubling every few years, growth in total factor productivity in nearly every OECD economy has been much slower in recent decades than before.  Claims that progress in technology is “faster than ever” is often referring to just one very visible, but economically quite small, sector, ICT, and those closely associated with it.  Many large and important sectors are Moore’s Law resistant and progress in ICT has not led to improvements in productivity.

Perhaps no sector illustrates this disconnect better than basic education. 

In the United States the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has tracked what 17- year olds know since the early 1970s. The overall trend has been stagnant, with almost no improvement. In contrast, over that same period, computing power increase not by 100 percent or 200 percent or 1000 percent but by 2 million-fold. This massive disconnect should have us asking: “If ICT were a key element of improving learning in schools, why has the 2-million-fold increase not yet led to any improvement at all?”

In many countries in the developing world the problem is even worse.  A recent paper from the Center of Global Development shows that the fraction of adult women who can read a single simple sentence in their chosen language has been steadily falling over time in South Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

The improvement in measures of computing power is on the order of 10 to the 10th. This is an astronomically large improvement. The difference between freeway speeds of cars and the speed of light is only 10 to 7th. 

The point is that if phenomenally large improvements in information technology have led to radical changes in those activities and domains that are amenable.  But problems which are not themselves fundamentally logistical or technical, but which are complex, or in the jargon, “wicked” and which are deeply human, social, and political are often not amenable to technical solutions.

Expecting technology to provide the solution might seem “futuristic” but really just augments the flaws of the “government of the past.” The future of government depends on humans driving purpose-driven, deliberative, mutual, account-based accountability , not the use of computing power to speed up accounting for process compliance and thin inputs.


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Lant Pritchett

Development Economist

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