Why government can’t be Silicon Valley

People like Andy Grove, brilliant at business though they are, also are driven by a desire to change the world by developing new things or totally disrupting ex...

If you want to know the difference between Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., one way is to understand the life of Andy Grove, the co-founder of Intel. He died Tuesday after battling prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease. You can read what the company says about Grove, or better, this account by long-time tech observer and writer Michael Malone.

Andy Grove
Andy Grove/AP file photo

By sheer intellectual power, decisiveness and an iron will, Grove became a seminal and enduring force in an industry that has become indispensable, at a company that has led the way for 35 years. Grove managed to escape both the Nazis and the communists in Europe to reach the only nation on earth big enough for his dreams and ambitions, the United States of America.

Henry Ford famously said he invented the modern age. Grove could have said the same thing. If you have woken up today, worked, traveled even one block, heated coffee and looked at a screen, you have in some way used or been served by multiple microprocessors. The Model T had no computers. A Ford Fusion probably has 25.

The government is now dotted with innovation labs, idea hubs, development groups like the General Services Administration’s 18F.  Defense Department and Homeland Security officials are streaming to Silicon Valley like the lame sought waters from the grotto at Lourdes. I hope they’re looking for the right thing. Because there’s a fundamental and, in some ways, insurmountable difference between government and industries like the microprocessor business.

Grove, Intel and many others are driven by a single-minded pursuit of profit, dominance and a desire to blaze new trails. When memory chips started looking like commodities, Grove yanked Intel from its mainstay business and gambled everything on processors. Gambled is the wrong word. He and his cohorts took no chances in the research, design, manufacture and marketing of microprocessors. With any other approach, the company would have ended up a nearly forgotten has-been.

People like Grove, brilliant at business though they are, also are driven by a desire to change the world by developing new things or totally disrupting existing things. Sam Walton comes to mind in the latter category for the way he affected retailing. In Silicon Valley, everything is fluid and dynamic. People leave and start competitors. They convince investors to give them millions, and if it doesn’t produce a dozen multi-millionaires it may go down the toilet.

Suppose you had an idea for a new government agency. Suppose you were the most powerful person in Congress and you had a new idea for a government agency. How long would it take before it was up and running? A decade?

Fundamentally, government agencies and high technology companies have different motivations. Agencies can’t overnight decide to change businesses. They can (and should) tinker endlessly with finding new ways to process what they do do. The Social Security Administration, for instance, has done the same thing for 75 years. The commissioner can’t decide tomorrow and say, “You know what? We’re going to take only 3 percent of wages and invest all the money in stocks and bonds.” Or, “We’re dropping the disability business, it’s too low margin.” What, in the end, can SSA innovate except the methods by which it gets money into people’s bank accounts every week?

If you are nominated to be commissioner of Social Security or secretary of Commerce, or any other high level federal job running things, the most you can hope to do is adjust and improve a few things within the close-together fences of policy, regulation and the political ambitions of whomever appointed you.

I’m not making a value judgment. Silicon Valley never would have come to be if it acted like government, nor could government maintain legitimacy if it acted like Silicon Valley. Yes, both entities require accountability, sound financial management, basic fairness in dealing with employees, and hot and cold running water. But what government needs from Silicon Valley is its products, not its culture.

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More commentary from Tom Temin