THE BLOG
07/25/2014 02:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 31, 2014

HOW TO MAKE ORDINARY PEOPLE EXTRAORDINARY

In the late 1970s, as penance for earlier sins, I signed on to help Jimmy Carter and my fellow citizens as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for International Trade.

One of the first things I learned needed to be done was to improve the substance and speed of the critical information the U.S. government collected to help American businesses see and find trade opportunities around the globe.

Because the USA is such a large single market, relatively few companies saw any need to develop overseas customers. As a result, the USA for a long time, bought more from the rest of the world than it sold and ran a big trade deficit, which over time is a very bad idea.

The information that was collected was in fact quite good and helpful, but it often took as long as 18 months to get into the hands of people who could use it.

As we sorted through the ways to address this challenge there were three basic approaches:

[1] Build a new cadre of people more attune to collecting and distributing information. Discussion of this idea lasted about 5 minutes because it is virtually impossible to eliminate and replace some 2,000 civil servants and Foreign Service officers.

[2] Contract with a private company to do the job--IBM for example. Again, the answer was "no," because the information is classified, and no private company could be trusted.

[3]Find a way to make the 2,000 existing employees better at their jobs. Since it was our only option, the question became HOW?

I had come from Wall Street and had seen how Merrill Lynch had seriously improved the skills and productivity of its thousands of brokers by supplying them with computer terminals (this was, remember, 1977 - well before Microsoft, and Apple made such technology commonplace).
Well, we did it with help from IBM. We built what we called WITS - for Worldwide Information and Trade System. We even got the Department of Defense to provide some satellite communication time to make the system available everywhere almost immediately.

The result was the information got much better, I believe because people began to believe it could be used in a timely way. And, from collection to availability, the time shrank from about 18 months on average to just a few days.

Today, the same basic system exists, but with the Internet and Google it is much more extensive, immediate and effective.

The result of that experience taught me then that it is possible to create tools that enable ordinary folks to be extraordinary and make government more effective, less expensive and much more productive.

All we need is to be open to changes. A lot of that has been happening in the past two decades. But a lot more can and should be encouraged.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.