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For government, efficiency should be more important than size

One of the major debates today is how big government should be. But maybe the wrong question is being asked. The argument about the size of the state overlooks a problem that is just as important and that may be easier to muster the collective will to resolve: How effective the state is, regardless of its scale.

Even in this age of polarized politics, there is one thing the right and left agree on: Government needs to get better. Diana Farrell, an economist who recently returned to the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. after a two-year stint in the White House, thinks smart pragmatists should seize this common ground.

"We see a massive opportunity in what is a meaningful part of GDP to make it work better," Ms. Farrell, who leads the new McKinsey Center for Government in Washington, D.C., told me. "Whether you believe government should be 20 per cent or 80 per cent of GDP is a political choice. But once that has been decided, then assuring that that part which is government works – that can be apolitical, that can be managerial. That is what we are trying to do."

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One of the big shortcomings of government is how clumsily it responds to the desires of its citizens. This is the 21st-century paradox: Even as political democracy has become the intellectual default mode for much of the world, the private sector usually trumps the public one when it comes to accommodating consumer choice.

James Fishkin is a communications professor at Stanford University in California, and a contributor to a volume of essays on how to fix the state that Ms. Farrell's centre is publishing next week. In his piece, Prof. Fishkin suggests one way to give citizens a stronger voice. He argues that neither opinion polls nor town halls do the trick. Polls are too superficial, and while town halls provide an arena for more nuanced debate, they are subject to capture by those whose convictions are most intense.

He believes a better option is a technique he calls deliberative polling, a modern spin on Athenian democracy. Deliberative polling takes a representative sample of citizens and gives them the time, information and structure to learn about complicated problems. According to Prof. Fishkin, this process has been used about 70 times in 18 countries. For example, Texas applied it in the 1990s to give the public a say in the use of renewable energy by regulated utilities.

The McKinsey essay collection is bursting with other good ideas: Peter Ho, formerly the top civil servant in Singapore, describes his country's thoughtful techniques for coping with an increasingly unpredictable and complex world, while Mohamed Ibrahim, the African cellphone mogul, identifies a lack of good data as the biggest obstacle to improving governance in his home continent. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, a London-based not-for-profit, sees the sorting of different types of garbage that most of us now do at home as the herald of a new era of greater citizen engagement with the state-provided services.

The unifying idea is that we should focus on making government smarter, not arguing about whether it is too big or too small. Even more compelling is the insistence that the state should be overhauled with the same rigour the private sector applies to efficiency and customer satisfaction. That rallying cry is long overdue.

But the appeal of this technocratic recipe is also its limitation. Data and metrics are wonderful tools, but private sector wonks who believe that their spreadsheets are the secret to fixing government would do well to remember that the greatest economic disaster of our time was caused by the most data-oriented sector of society. Wall Street didn't fail because it had too few quantitative analysts, but because it had too many.

And Ms. Farrell's quest for apolitical improvements in government goes only so far. The truth, as Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out in the most important essay, is that governing is an innately political act. It is absurd to campaign narrowly for a more efficient state while setting aside debates about what that state is for.

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All of us can agree that we want government to work as well as possible, and we should applaud efforts to improve it. But there is no escaping the divisive and essential questions: What is the purpose of the state and whom does it serve?

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