About 20 years ago, two scholars named William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser did a study on how individuals make decisions. What they found is that individuals disproportionately stick with the status quo, or what they have always done. They coined this observation the "status quo bias." And if we consider it, most of us have probably fallen prey to the status quo bias. Have you ever kept a credit card with one company even when better interest rates and terms were offered at a company almost identical to your own? Or failed to cancel a magazine you never read simply because you've always gotten the subscription? Or second guessed buying the toothpaste you always buy simply because the product had a new look?
Individuals and organizations prefer to do what we have always done, many times without even questioning or noticing. The status quo is comfortable. It doesn’t require change. But the problem with doing what we have always done, is that we are likely to get the same results we have always gotten. And it does not leave any room for innovation.
Our federal government suffers from the status quo bias, especially when it comes to federal response efforts. The federal government has relied on the same decision making model for decades. As most Americans know, the federal government decision making model is slow and does not respond quickly. As a result, the federal government loses valuable time and is largely unable to identify and implement innovative decisions. This happens every day in government, but we see it in high definition when it comes to national disasters.
In the case of the recent BP oil spill, it took 50 days before the federal government began efforts to plug the leaking well and sop up the slick. Government officials lacked the ability to consider innovative tools and processes to evaluate the ideas that were proposed. It left the American people wondering – “how long have we been drilling for oil in the ocean floor? Why was no one asking, ‘what if we have a leak?’” In the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Americans watched on the news as days passed where elderly and vulnerable citizens were stranded, while school buses sat in parking lots unused in any evacuation efforts. The American people wondered – “how long have we had hurricanes? Why was no one asking ‘what if the levy broke? How would we evacuate nursing home citizens? What if a major city was flooded?’”
The fact is that our federal government is wrapped so tightly in a status quo of bureaucratic red tape that there is no way to move quickly. Government response is stuck in FDA-mode – it is large, slow, and rigid. We are using an old model. Stove-piped decision-making results in a piecemeal response to many national disasters. There is no effective guidance to compel or instruct federal agencies to coordinate because every federal agency has its own unique operational and structural organization. And most federal agencies have limited access to new technologies, like modeling and simulation that allow for more efficient training in a tight budget environment.
However, our crises have outgrown the old “safe” status quo. We need the ability to act quickly. We need a system in place that is efficient, useful, flexible, and filtered. Whether it is Katrina or the Gulf oil spill, the United States needs a process to bring to bear creative solutions to critical problems quickly if not proactively. We need a mechanism in government that can handle individual ideas and creative inventions.
Imagine if the federal government could ask the “what if” questions about a wide variety of national disasters from natural to manmade. Imagine if our federal agencies could come together not just once, but systematically to use technology to simulate national emergencies and the potential impacts on anything from water supply, to hospitals, to public transportation, to the environment. Imagine a crisis that could be solved in hours or days, rather than months, or, better yet, prevent it altogether. Imagine a virtual command center where hundreds of ideas from across the nation could be simulated, rated for effectiveness, and placed into effect across all federal agencies within a matter of moments.
This type of virtual collaboration could be used today. Modeling and simulation is the platform that is providing these opportunities. The military services have long relied on computer models and virtual trainers to teach troops combat skills to help maintain high levels of military readiness. In today’s high-tech society and with the increasing potential of global threats, the federal government must be tapping in to these resources. Lack of preparedness is not an option for our federal government.
No matter the national challenges – from major undertakings such as oil spill recovery, the government pandemic flu response, and coordinating government policy toward global threats – I believe we can achieve effective federal government response. Ours is a nation of innovation and creativity, and we as a people have relied on those qualities throughout our nation's history. It is our unique reliance on creativity that sets us apart from other nations and allows us to be the greatest nation in the world.
We simply have to fully harness that creativity using 21st century technology to achieve the best results for our nation. None of this is going to happen, though, if we continue to look to the status quo and allow federal bureaucracy run the collaboration room. We cannot accomplish it without a command center that is using technology to its fullest potential to look out across all of our agencies, weigh scenarios, and determine the best possible outlook.
To get there, we first have to be willing to move away from the status quo. The American people are ready for that. The federal government can do better, and our leaders need to make it a priority to get there.