Is Your Government Good Or Bad For Innovation?
I know. I know.
How could I even suggest government could be remotely helpful when it comes to innovation?
Just consider the most frustrating experience you’ve had with government. If you are like most entrepreneurs, you have quite a list from which to choose. Let me give you my current “favorite” one.
My chief of staff mailed letters to each and every one of our employees telling them what we intended to do with the ~$48.00 premium reimbursement/surplus in our health care plan.
F-o-r-t-y e-i-g-h-t dollars.
Because of the Affordable Care Act, he was required to send the letters — by mail, with a stamp, by a specific date — or bad things would happen to us.
(What would we do with $48? We had three options under the law. The simplest of which was to divide the surplus evenly between all the participants, cutting each a check with taxes taken out and then snail mail it. The average check: less than $1. If it were up to me, I would have bought the entire company a nice lunch, using the $48 to defray the cost of some of the soft drinks.)
It seems that Uncle Sam is keenly interested in making sure that the people in charge of our health care policy (that’s us) don’t screw over any of our employees or their families (that’s us, too). What a complete waste of freaking time.
After over two decades in business, I am convinced that intrusions by our government literally cost our (very small) companies hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
So why would I even suggest that government could be good for innovation?
Well it turns out, there is another side. And if you ask whether government is good or bad for innovation, it isn’t very difficult to argue either point.
Pro: Moonshot Thinking Inspires Innovation
Going to the moon, an interstate system of highways, ending hunger, fresh water for everyone…great leaders and great governments have a way of setting goals seemingly too big for any one person. Courageous proclamations backed by the political levers and big budgets of governments have created some of the greatest innovations of our time. #goreinventedtheinternet
Con: Political Correctness Kills Innovation
If an idea doesn’t offend someone, it usually isn’t revolutionary. Show me an idea that rocked the world, and I’ll show you a person or industry that was diminished by it. I promise you that they found that huge idea offensive when they first heard it. #Videokilledtheradiostar
Pro: R&D Needs Government Help
Through funding and access, the government has helped universities, departments and people research and develop ideas that have made our world safer, more productive and better in too many ways to count. The next time you see the list of projects that proclaim government waste (e.g., the mating habits of grasshoppers), dig a little deeper. You will likely find a noble cause that without government help would go unexplored. #waterfiltersfromspace
Con: Bureaucracy Means Slower, Inefficient And More Expensive
We’ve all heard of the $436 hammer or wondered why nobody seems to be in a hurry to render great service at the department of motor vehicles. If you are in business, the faster and better the service, the more profitable you can be. I still remember my first government job. At the age of 18, I was reprimanded by other workers for going too fast and working too hard. It was baffling to me. Now it makes perfect sense. The TSA is an 8-billion-dollar-a-year example of an objective met: employ more people doing ineffective work. #securitytheatre
Pro: Protecting Mother Earth
We are using up the resources of the earth faster and faster and the pace of consumption is unsustainable. Our survival as a species literally depends on cross-cultural government cooperation to protect our seas, trees, air and other limited resources. #climatechangeisreal
Con: Consensus Kills Ideas
The winning formula looks like this: Small teams = Big ideas, Large teams = Small ideas. Why? Because if and when any idea has survived consensus thinking, it is sure to offend or inspire nobody. #stalemateincongress
Pro: War! Huuh! What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Something)
I hesitate to write this one because somebody is going to light up my Twitter account (@theideamonkey), but when any government rushes to the defense of a border, a people or a cause, great innovation ensues (e.g., jet engines, drones and radar along with some fun, unexpected little gems). #WargaveustheTwinkie
Nobody likes war, but there is nothing like a common enemy to make things happen. So instead of wars, we should all strive to solve worthy challenges. And this, my friend, is something every government should and can help us do.
So what do you think? Is government good or bad for innovation? Examples please.
Article originally published August 4, 2014, on Forbes.com