The Ron Swanson Theory of Creative Disruption

Everyone has worked with a Ron Swanson — a stonewalling figure resistant, if not downright hostile, to change. Though the Parks and Recreation character presides over the operations of a fictional Indiana township, this figure isn’t unique to city governance. Any public or private organization of a certain size and bureaucratic complexity has at least one in its ranks, which is why the character’s recognizable or relatable to millions of viewers. But with the breakneck pace of technological innovation and creative disruption, it’s never been a worse time to be resistant to change, as various media industries have learned over the past two decades.

There are numerous factors driving the decline of newspapers, magazines, and the recording industry, which will no doubt be debated for decades to come. But on a fundamental level, these businesses were disrupted by technological innovation because they weren’t serving their customers as well as they could have. This “creative destruction,” as technologists dub the process, hasn’t been without collateral damage, which hasn’t only included the Ron Swansons of each respective industry. Overseas news bureaus have been shuttered. As insurance plans and 401k’s become increasingly untenable, news outlets rely increasingly on precarious permalance workers. And Garageband and iPod earbuds have rendered many recording studios redundant.

On the face of it, city governance is in dire need of such creative destruction. You’d be hard-pressed to find a citizen that feels that their city serves her needs as well as it could, and the reliance of city governments on bureaucracy and legacy technologies like PDF or (gasp!) paper make the technologist’s mind reel. But city governance is a sophisticated mechanism operating through policy, limited economic and human resources, political influence, and prodigiously complex IT infrastructures. It’s not directly impacted market forces like the private sector. And citizens are reliant on the services these institutions provide, no matter how inefficiently or ineffectively those services may be provided. It’s a significant set of challenges, enough to make open gov advocates feel like Parks and Recreation’s idealistic-yet-beleaguered Leslie Knope.

Open gov advocates and organizations like Code for America are simultaneously threading two needles: getting cities — including their respective Ron Swansons — on board with new initiatives, and creatively disrupting, rather than destroying, what is already working in city government. It’s a process that requires that open gov advocates identify not only what aspects of city governance could be disrupted, but more importantly, what can be disrupted that is in most dire need of change.

So how do the forces of creative disruption work with the practitioners of the art of the possible? It’s a give-and-take process that requires open gov advocates demonstrate the value of open gov. Do city workers and officials understand what isn’t working, who isn’t being served, and how technology-driven solutions could address these issues? This demands that the disruptors are willing to engage and learn, a point Jen Pahlka emphasized to me during an interview for Shareable Magazine, in which she described Code for America’s approach:

“It’s about offering approaches and learning about the cities’ needs and the challenges they have.” When working with the city officials, “We try to make it a two way thing,” she adds. “We don’t want to fall in to the consultant trap where we’re telling government what they should be doing.”

The real-life Ron Swansons have reasons for their intransigence, and they’re rarely comedic. They’ve been operating that complex mechanism of city government for years or decades, and Silicon Valley-style creative destruction will appear neither tenable nor desirable. It’ll take all kinds to make this process work, and if the resistant have a few things to learn about innovation, disruptors from the outside can learn as much about the operations of government. Again, it’s a process closer to threading needles than demolishing edifices. No small feat, and open gov is unlikely to earn a spot on the Pyramid of Greatness, but hey — even the stone-faced Ron Swanson will back up Leslie Knope when she makes an undeniable case.

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Joe Flood

Ron Swanson is a hero! He’s intransigent but not because he wants to keep city government the way it is. As a libertarian, he wants to destroy much of government and only his admiration for Leslie Knope probably keeps him from doing so. As he said in an early episode:

My idea of a perfect government is one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke.

Swanson believes that government is too big and bureaucratic, a view held by Americans of all stripes. The current system doesn’t work, a belief shared by open government advocates. Rather than being an opponent of government reform, people like Swanson are natural allies because they recognize that government is broken.

There are opponents of open government and governmental reform. But they are parties invested in the current system, not those who want to change it.