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Culture shield

Most conservatives want to see the state become smaller, less wasteful and more responsive to the needs of those who pay for it. Increasingly, we’re pinning those hopes on the application of new technologies – especially those in the fields of automation, communications and information.

Walk into a public library, for instance, and you’ll now find machines that enable you to borrow and return books – and even pay your fines – without the assistance of a librarian. Unlike those appalling automated supermarket check-outs, the library machines are a joy to use – proof that the public sector isn’t doomed to technological failure.

So, might we be entering a new era of streamlined, smart government in which the old bureaucratic order is comprehensively overturned? Maybe, but technology alone won’t make it happen – the culture of government also has to change.

Writing for War on the Rocks, Paul Scharre provides a fascinating case study – one that applies to the use of drone technology by the US military, but which illustrates the bloody-minded attitudes of public sector bureaucracies everywhere:

“The biggest threat to the U.S. military’s lead in unmanned systems isn’t commercial sector innovation or even declining defense resources… but rather hidebound cultures and entrenched bureaucracies within the Department of Defense (DoD) itself…”

“Technologies do not exist in a vacuum, and the relationship between an emergent technology and its military user is often far more important than the technology itself. Within the U.S. military, cultural views on which tasks are appropriate for unmanned and autonomous systems is leading to game-changing innovations being ignored or, in some cases, resisted.”

To illustrate just how unnecessary this is, he compares two drone systems – the Air Force ‘Predator’ and the Army ‘Gray Eagle’. These are essentially the same piece of kit, but they’ve been used in very different ways:

“Gray Eagle operators are not really ‘pilots.’ The platform’s takeoff and landing are automated, and in the air it is controlled by a human operator who directs the aircraft where to go from a console. Air Force Predators, on the other hand, are flown by a pilot—in a flight suit, with a joystick, and sitting in a mock ‘cockpit’ on the ground. These differences translate to extra costs for Air Force Predators—not insignificant in today’s budget environment.”

Meanwhile, the US army has found its own way to waste taxpayers’ money:

“Air Force Predators are flown remotely from the United States, with only a minimal crew forward deployed for launch and recovery. Army Gray Eagle operators, meanwhile, deploy forward to fly the aircraft from theater. As a result, the Army needs roughly two additional operators stateside for every one deployed so that it can rotate them through theater, a hefty personnel bill in today’s end-strength constrained Army.”

In each case, you can see how organisational culture gets in the way of efficiency. The Air Force obviously takes pride in its pilots and clearly doesn’t like the idea of putting any of its aircraft – even if they are unmanned – under the control of a mere “operator.” The Army’s cultural hang-up is a different one:

“From the Army’s perspective, soldiers deploy to war. That’s what soldiers do. Pride, honor, and identity are on the line, and these are far more powerful forces than studies promising increased efficiencies.”

For the Air Force, deploying at a considerable distance from the main action isn’t such a big leap from traditional airborne warfare, but for the Army – used to being on the ground – the idea of remote fighting requires a bigger adjustment of basic assumptions.

Equally powerful hang-ups will be present throughout the public sector – among teachers, doctors and police offices, for example. Nevertheless, new technology will transform the way that people do their jobs in each of these professions. To survive in a world where money is in short supply, but computing power is increasingly abundant, we must all adapt.

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