Communication professor traces the history of start-ups, from a novel idea in the tech industry to an approach embraced by the government
The United States Digital Service, or USDS, was started in 2014 by the Obama administration. Its first task was to fix the overburdened Healthcare.gov website. Today it has partnered with many different parts of the federal government.
Stephanie Schulte, associate professor of communication at the University of Arkansas, calls the USDS, the first “federal start-up,” and says it allowed the U.S. government to capitalize on the public’s positive attitude toward start-up culture. And this start-up was a success.
“In addition to its work on healthcare, by 2016, USDS had already worked on streamlining taxes and student loan information systems, strengthening data security for defense agencies, refining acquisition processes with the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and redesigning the Small Business Administration certification process,” says Schulte in an open-access paper published in the International Journal of Communication.
In order to show how start-up culture became so influential, Schulte traced the evolution of this concept. She explains in her article that the term entered the everyday language in the 1970s, in descriptions of venture capital funds as “start-up financing” or “start-up capital.” In the 1990s, the term became associated with Silicon Valley tech companies, and by 2010, the definition had expanded to include ice cream shops and charter schools.
The term, Schulte explains, “conveyed a cluster of meanings, including flexible, innovative, lean, disruptive and poised to scale.” Start-ups became an emblem of “American-style bootstrapism, a type of the cool, portable, future facing optimism.”
Schulte points out that two of the central ideas of start-ups — disruption and productive failure — seem out of place in the context of government. Disruption refers to radical breakthroughs and innovations as opposed to the slow, incremental changes associated with government. Productive failure is the idea that risks are worth taking, even if they don’t always succeed.
Schulte explains that these differences were what made the idea of a federal start-up attractive to the public. Start-up culture, she said, “could productively disrupt American democracy and government, just as — at least in the eyes of many consumers — Uber productively disrupted taxi monopolies, Airbnb disrupted hotel markets, and the Khan Academy disrupted stagnant educational institutions.”
Schulte points out that the USDS presents an opportunity to examine the effect of incorporating concepts from private business into government institutions.