Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University. This an excerpt from his new book, Simpler: The Future of Government.
This is a book about making things simpler. In particular, it is about how governments can be much better, and do much better, if they make people’s lives easier and get rid of unnecessary complexity. Think, for a moment, about the best computers and tablets. They have all sorts of complicated machinery—machinery that is so complicated, in fact, that it would have been barely imaginable just a decade before. But for users, they are simple and intuitive. They don’t require manuals. You can work with them on the basis of what you already know. Government should be a lot more like that.
I am not saying that government should be much smaller. I do believe that in some domains, smaller is better, and government should shrink. But that is not my topic here. To have a simpler government, you need to have a government. The term user-friendly isn’t exactly user-friendly, but simplicity is friendly, and complexity is not. True, complexity has its place, but in the future, governments, whatever their size, have to get simpler. To understand how I came to these views, to see what progress we have already made, and to know what the future has in store, we need to step back a bit.
In 2008, I had my first date (or maybe predate interview) with my now-wife, Samantha Power. Offering a little test (in case it really was a date), she asked me, “If you could have any job in the world, other than law professor, what would it be?” As I later learned, she was hoping to hear that I would play in the E Street Band with Bruce Springsteen or start at shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. Instead I said, apparently with a dreamy, faraway, what-could- possibly-be-better look, “Ohhhh, OIRA.”
Her answer: “What the heck is OIRA?” (She might have used a four-letter word other than “heck.”) Miraculously, I got a second date.
OIRA (pronounced o eye-rah) is Washington-speak for a little office with a big impact: the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. OIRA was created in 1980 by the Paperwork Reduction Act. (Yes, there is such a thing.) Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, no federal agency is allowed to collect information from the American people, or to make you fill out a form, unless OIRA allows it to do so. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan gave OIRA an even more important role, which is to oversee federal regulation. By executive order, President Reagan also said, in a controversial and crucial provision, that “regulatory action shall not be undertaken unless the potential benefits to society for the regulation outweigh the potential costs to society.” He charged OIRA with responsibility for ensuring compliance with that edict.
In that very year, I happened to be working as a young lawyer in the Department of Justice. By a stroke of luck, I was heavily involved in the legal work that established what has turned out to be OIRA’s enduring role. I was even able to participate in the drafting of the all-important cost-benefit provision. For nearly three decades, heading OIRA had been my dream job.
From 2009 to 2012, I ended up as administrator of OIRA. In that position, I helped to oversee the issuance of nearly two thousand rules from federal agencies. Under President Obama’s direction, I promoted simplification, including the use of plain language, reductions in red tape, readable summaries of complex rules, and the elimination of costly, unjustified requirements. I argued in favor of the use of “nudges”—simple, low-cost, freedom-preserving approaches, drawing directly from behavioral economics, that promise to save money, to improve people’s health, and to lengthen their lives. Also under President Obama’s direction, I promoted a disciplined emphasis on costs and benefits, in an effort to ensure that the actions of government are based on facts and evidence, not intuitions, anecdotes, dogmas, or the views of powerful interest groups.
In this book I describe the large-scale transformation in American government that took place while I was OIRA administrator. I explore initiatives designed to increase simplicity—some now in effect, others on the horizon, still others for the distant future. As we will see, initiatives of this kind can be used not only by governments all over the world but by countless private organizations as well, including businesses large and small, and indeed by all of us in our daily lives. Each of us can benefit from simplicity, and all of us can make things simpler.
Excerpted from Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass R. Sunstein. Copyright © 2013 by Cass Sunstein. Excerpted with permission of Simon & Schuster, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.