We don’t make Widgets – Ken Miller

“Government is a bunch of hardworking people, trapped in dysfunctional systems, who produce invisible things for people who do not want them, on behalf of others who do, for reasons we rarely articulate and can hardly measure.”

Most government employees—perhaps most employees, these days—would say they don’t make widgets. They provide services, help others, and answer questions. Fair enough. But, says Ken Miller, they have the wrong idea of widgets. An answer can be a widget; so can a service. A widget is anything created by work which can be given to someone else to achieve a desired outcome.

Ken Miller outlines three myths that hinder the improvement of government. One, governments don’t make widgets; two, governments don’t have customers; three, governments aren’t there to make a profit. In a literal sense, these are all plausible. Believing them, he argues, can also prevent government from learning and improving.

If everyone is making widgets, everyone is a plant manager. The analogy, says Miller, can provide useful insights, regardless of whether it is literally true or not. If a widget plant is to improve, it must make widgets better, make better widgets, or make new widgets that lead to better outcomes. The same three areas are where government can improve. Those three things are also the key areas to measure. Every manager needs to know how good their process is, how good their product is, and whether they can make better products to better meet the needs of their customers.

The analogy can sometimes be taken in the wrong way. Serving customers isn’t the same as doing whatever they want: Ford doesn’t give away free cars, even though customers might want them to. In the same way, having oil companies as customers doesn’t mean doing what they want. It means acting in the interests of shareholders, in this case taxpayers, and regulating them for the benefit of all.

The book is short, clear and compelling, a summary of how the private sector perspective can benefit governments. Of course, that isn’t the end of the story, and such a perspective can also go too far. Government is different from the private sector. Innovation, however, comes from interdisciplinary work, and both government and the private sector can benefit from studying the lessons of the other.

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