From COVID Vaccines to Library Cards, Government is Failing Us. Here’s the Way Out.

It’s bigger than party.

The Problem

This all started when I had to renew my library card.

I got an e-mail requesting a picture of a photo ID with my current address on it. I got my driver’s license and passport before I moved here two years ago, so I asked how else I could renew my card and continue to experience the joys of reading. The friendly folks at the library demanded a photo ID and two (!) proofs of residence.

This got me thinking about how a lot of things in this country are working. In short: not well.

We are carefully following rules and accomplishing nothing. We put in place an arcane system of regulations and lose sight of our overall goal. And it goes way beyond your little local library.

The Problem is Everywhere

Early in the pandemic, getting a COVID test was next to impossible. I volunteered to schedule them at a nearby hospital in March, and the desperation in the voices of the callers struck me.

Why was it so hard to get a test? The CDC first required all labs to use their test, which did not work, rather than letting labs develop their own.

The University of Washington sought to make a COVID test on its own in February. Widespread testing at that time might have stopped the pandemic in its tracks. They made a test, filled out the mountain of documents the government required, and sent them off.

One problem: regulations required they also mail a USB drive or CD-ROM containing the documents. Here’s the lab’s director, Keith Jerome:

We’ve got a lot of scientists and doctors and laboratory personnel who are incredibly good at making assays. What we’re not so good at is figuring out all the forms and working with the bureaucracy of the federal government.” Jerome said that Greninger had to call and e-mail the F.D.A. multiple times to figure out what they needed to secure an E.U.A. “At one point, he was very frustrated because he’d e-mailed them what we were doing so they could review it,” Jerome said. “But legally you also had to mail a physical copy. Here we are in this SARS-CoV-2 crisis, and you have to send them something through the United States Postal Service. It’s just shocking.” (The F.D.A. has since dropped the requirement to send a CD-ROM or USB drive with a copy of the application.)

The New Yorker

Frankly, as much as I try to stay calm, reading this sort of thing makes my blood boil. Still not convinced? Well, let’s mosey over from the CDC to the Pentagon.

The Department of Defense took a year to get cloth masks for our soldiers. A year! But at least they got a great deal. Each one comes at the bargain price of $45:

It took a full year for the service to design, approve and distribute a face mask — called a Combat Cloth Face Covering, or CCFC — for its soldiers, an effort that required an additional $43.5 million in contracts to provide temporary solutions. That comes out to about $45 per mask, if you assume every active-duty, National Guard and Reserve soldier received one. A pack of 20 N95 masks at Home Depot costs about $20.

And yet, the Army congratulated itself on the “expedited” timeline, compared to the 18- to 24-month procurement cycle such an effort would normally take.

“The system worked as designed,” tweeted a former Marine.

And that is precisely the problem.

This from Defense News, by way of the excellent Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution.

If you’re still unconvinced we have a problem here, I’ll give you one last example. Here are some of the ways you can get a COVID vaccine in Hudson County, NJ where I live. Each one has a separate website, and some have no website at all! I haven’t been able to find an appointment on any of them yet:

An AirBnB engineer in New York, Huge Ma, made his own website for $50 that aggregates the similar patchwork of vaccination sites in New York into one slick system. Government had most of 2020 and millions of dollars to do something similar, but never saw fit to do it.

How We Can Fix It

Huge Ma shows us what one capable person can do, freed of constraints. What government needs to do is to get some capable people together, give them an overall goal, and let them do the work.

What might that look like? Get together a few of the best IT people in the New Jersey state government, call in a couple outside experts (perhaps Mr. Ma!), and tell them “We need to get people vaccines. Make it happen.”

Getting together a group of capable people, giving them an endpoint, and letting them figure out how to get there is how the best organizations work. The superb book Good to Great details how that process has succeeded at one organization after another.

In addition, we need all the Huge Ma’s we can get. Let’s have private citizens make things without permission, and also agitate to get government to work better.

With that in mind, I will now politely submit all the required documents for my new library card, but also enquire how we might make this process easier for others in the future. 🙂

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Photo: “President Trump Meets with the Governor of New Jersey” by The White House is marked with CC PDM 1.0

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