The Law Everyone Should Hate
Mar 14, 2013 Clay Johnson

Let's say you ran one of the Fortune 10 companies. And for some reason, you wanted to ensure that this business would be hated by its customers, forever. What would you do?

Now the obvious thing to do would be to do something poisonous to your product -- to somehow make it dangerous or deadly. Add lead to the toys. Put the spark plugs next to the gas tank. Put mercury in the sausage. But that's the stuff that makes for short term catastrophes that could end your business, not long term contempt that'll keep your business hated, but still keep you in business. You want to run this like a cable company, not ValueJet.

No, for long term contempt, you need stuff that nobody notices. Stuff that can stick around in your organization forever and not be corrected because it's long been forgotten. This is a problem that can't be solved with such sophomoric thinking as just accidentally running over some children with your trucking business. You need to bring in the experts at this: the "corporate policy" people.

What I'd do is create a policy that makes it really hard for my company's employees to ask questions of my company's customers. I'd make it a struggle to collect feedback. In order to collect any form of feedback, I'd make it so that you had to first ask for permission from an underfunded and understaffed component of the central office of my corporation.

Of course I'd also make it take at least six months to get this approval. That way, most of the people who wanted to ask my customers a question were immediately discouraged from doing so. And of course, the people that I'd put in this underfunded understaffed component of my central office -- I wouldn't make them professional question askers. They wouldn't be language experts or people obsessed with the "customer experience." Instead -- just to make sure that whatever questions to customers that did come out of my office were terrible -- I'd staff this office with economists and lawyers.

Then, just to be especially perverse, what I'd do is encourage my company to use social media. I'd create policies around it, pushing my company to go online on Facebook and Twitter and stuff, and to have "authentic conversations" with our customers. I'd tell them that it was totally cool to use social media to informally do whatever they wanted, except to use that information to inform product or service decisions.

This way, my employees will be completely cut off from their customers needs. And the only employees that actually make it to the customers are the people who know how to talk to the economists. That'll make it so whatever inputs and outputs of my business are so incomprehensible that they'll just create more frustration rather than solve problems. And making people go out in social media? That's just the icing that makes it so people think they're giving input to the company without that input actually making it anywhere useful. That'll make the customers nuts!

It's a machievellian scenario that, sadly, I didn't make up. This "corporate policy" is actually a law that makes your government act like this, and it's nefariously named the "Paperwork Reduction Act." It was the last bill signed into law by Jimmy Carter in 1980.

I don't know whether this outcome was Carter's intent. During my presidential innovation fellowship, I spent two out of the six months I had, simply trying to figure out the legal way for our project to ask a question. Not writing code, not talking to customers -- just filling out the paperwork and seeking approval to put this form on the Internet. And that's as a high-level appointee with air cover coming from the White House. Can you imagine what the people who dedicate their lives to this have to go through to talk to customers?

Did you know that when this president took office, it was illegal for the President to end a tweet with a question mark without a six month approval process from the economists across the street at the "Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs." No seriously -- they seriously had to give guidance to the rest of the federal agencies in 2009 that gave them permission to ask questions over the internet. It basically says: Sure, you can ask people questions, as long as you don't ask for structured feedback (feedback you can do anything with). Thus it became ok to end sentences on twitter with a question mark. I can't make this stuff up!

The Paperwork Reduction Act is a terrible law. It doesn't need to be revisited or revamped. It needs to be removed. In 1980, I'm sure collecting information cost government a lot of money. Forms had to be made. They needed to be proofread. It needed the mail or the telephone. It was expensive to key in the data collections. It was worth taking the time.

But today, it's a disaster. There's nothing I can think of that's more antithetical to democracy than prohibiting government from asking for feedback from its citizens besides, maybe, prohibiting them from actually voting. Though there's a case to be made that citizens providing feedback on actual policy is just as important than who they elect.

This law doesn't govern over "forms" it governs over "information collections." From tweets to RFPs to Facebook posts, to regulatory questions. Want to make a form that asks developers to report bugs in datasets? Forget it. Inside of your government it empowers the "culture of no." After just a few months of working on the inside, it kills your ambition to actually talk to customers, and instead encourages your government to operate blindly.

It makes insanity happen.

Why You should care

If you want to know why you don't feel like you're being listened to, or why government is flunking at social media it's not because of a lack of will. It's because of the Paperwork Reduction Act that's actively prohibiting your voice from making it to the right people in Washington. There's no other country on the planet with a law like this, And that's something Congress has to fix.

Whether you sit to the right or to the left, a democratic republic should be great at asking questions and getting answers from the people it's intended to serve. If it can't do that, it can't serve anybody.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson