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Epistemic status: I’ve been working for a decade on increasing state capacity through political reform, government operational improvements and implementing modern digital tools and data techniques. I definitely come at this though with a lot of California-centric biases that I have tried to make legible. My goal in providing a California-centric view is making the topic of government reform and state capacity — very abstract concepts — much more concrete and actionable.

Executive Summary

Without addressing massive state capacity failures across the world, EA’s have little to no hope of meaningfully addressing any of their priority cause areas.

How can end global hunger if governments can build and maintain roads and other infrastructure to transport foods? What use are smart biosecurity interventions if the next big pandemic will just be botched again by bureaucratic kludges?

Funding high quality, effective nongovernmental organizations is good, valuable and necessary— but far from sufficient. It’s important to keep in mind how miniscule not just EA but really all philanthropy is in the scheme of public investment.

This essay argues:

  1. State capacity shortcoming presents a massive challenge for humanity today and is foundationally important for EA’s success as a movement
  2. Increasing state capacity is not only possible but already occurring in numerous pockets of excellence that can be scaled
  3. Effective altruism can serve an invaluable role in winning the war of ideas and providing the resources — financial, human, technological — to glue various efforts to address the state capacity crisis

Let’s dig in.

The importance of state capacity for EA’s success as a movement

Let me describe how things look from my hometown of Los Angeles.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated numerous long term trends and slow boiling crises. Skyrocketing housing prices. Simmering racial injustice. Stagnation and the sense that we cannot build much of anything anymore, even a state IT system capable of writing checks.

A year ago we were asked to make our own cloth masks due to shortages. Today the supply chain has become a meme and there are shortages in everything.

A place like Singapore would look at such a problem and simply build another port. We were slow to change aesthetic local zoning regulations that prevented containers from being stacked too high and exacerbated the bottleneck at the Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbor. This reality raises broader questions. Stripe CEO Patrick Collison asks:

“Why do there seem to be more examples of rapidly-completed major projects in the past than the present?” A hyper-simplistic answer to that very thorny question: a proliferation of veto points has made it much easier to stop large projects than to push them through.

That dynamic is not limited to California but vetocracy operates in the specific, not the abstract, so I will offer California, a region I know best, as a case study for the larger dynamics at work.

California as a case study

In California, since the passage of Proposition 1A in 2008, our state has struggled to build high speed rail -- a technology ingrained decades ago in Europe and Asia. Joe Mathews points out that Taiwan managed to build its project despite environmental approvals, land acquisitions, and cost overruns -- all the standard excuses for California’s project.

The other California megaproject, the State Water Project Delta tunnels, has languished in procedural purgatory for decades. The recent environmental review for the project ran over twenty thousand pages. The Newsom administration changed the project from two to one tunnel since that review began, restarting the process.

The most recent planning costs for the 2021-2024 period is over $340 million. Such exercises make one wonder: does anyone actually ever read the resulting tens of thousands of pages of reports? These exercises are particularly odd considering that the ultimate environmental impact cannot be perfectly determined a priori and runs against [adaptive management](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptive_management#:~:text=Adaptive management%2C also known as,over time via system monitoring.) best practices. What then is actually the point, besides providing lucrative consulting contracts?

That procedural complexity is exacerbated by byzantine institutional structures fragmented across the state, local and federal levels. Who is in charge of the Delta? Is it the Delta Stewardship Commission? One of the two state agencies? The Army Corps of Engineers? This report (9 min) on modernizing California Water Management is well worth a ponder and skim of the executive summary to see a prime example of why California’s government is ineffective.

Some context: First, if you are not familiar, the Little Hoover Commission is the premier analytical outfit for examining opportunities to improve California effectiveness. (Sadly the Commission lacks real power and is thus often ignored) Second, the report illuminates how key structural challenges -- incredible complexity and administrative fragmentation -- that exacerbate government ineffectiveness are hiding in plain sight.

The following section surfaces several worthwhile articles that provide additional case studies, mostly in a United States-centric context, and insight into the dynamics of how vetocracy prevents effective government and a high capacity state.

Key pieces of the State Capacity canon illuminating the dynamics of vetocracy

Penn Station & Robert Caro (~52 min) -- Politico magazine ran a feature article about the challenges and cost overruns in building Penn station. This case study echoes the same underlying trend as California: numerous and sometimes invisible veto points prevent effective and sometimes any action.

Why We Can't Build (~12 min) -- Ezra Klein offers a crisp summary of how changing political dynamics have shifted the incentives to cut deals and break the logjam of vetocracy. He summarizes the repeated failed efforts to fix Penn Station as follows:

“This is representative democracy at its worst: A democracy that only represents those who know to show up at meetings most people never hear about, and so ends up handing power to special interests and aggrieved NIMBYs.”

The following two articles provide a good starting point for grokking how the sheer complexity of government has increased, with a proliferation of veto points and commensurate decrease in relative effectiveness.

The Procedure Fetish - Niskanen Center (~25 min)

“Inflexible procedural rules are a hallmark of the American state. The ubiquity of court challenges, the artificial rigors of notice-and-comment rulemaking, zealous environmental review, pre-enforcement review of agency rules, picayune legal rules governing hiring and procurement, nationwide court injunctions — the list goes on and on. Collectively, these procedures frustrate the very government action that progressives demand to address the urgent problems that now confront us.”

Kludgeocracy in America (~34 min)

“The complexity and incoherence of our government often make it difficult for us to understand just what that government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized.”

So what to do? The following section address common mental sticking points about state capacity and points to key resources that showcase different approaches to addressing this challenge.

Tractability — breaking through the mental block of increasing state capacity and useful vectors for addressing state capacity shortcomings

There can often be an underlying aversion to working on improving state capacity in EA (and many other!) circles. That mental block often stems from the following type of thinking:

“Government is just by its nature slow, efficient, bureaucratic, complex, convoluted, <insert additional adjectives> and working to change that is just the nature of the game.”

The challenge is that there are obvious counterexamples of increased state capacity. Numerous East Asian countries adapted much more readily to the realities of Covid-19. Operation Warp Speed accelerated vaccine development.

In addition, government once was able to do big things. California still benefits from visionary public works like the State Water System, UC System, and interstate highway project. What can be done elsewhere and was once able to be done here, can be done again.

There are also a wide variety of success stories and movements improving state capacity as outlined in the subsequent section.

A few useful vectors for improving state capacity in California and beyond

This joins a growing chorus of organizations focused on improving government effectiveness, albeit from different vectors.

Smart government framework (~70 min) -- CA Forward was founded in 2007 by a group of leading foundations during the state budget crisis. This report was published in 2011 and built on a large number of regional listening sessions with local elected, business and community leaders. The themes focus on regionalism, integrating siloed operations and developing cycles of program delivery, echoing similar commissions and convenings of the good and great in response to state fiscal challenges over the previous two decades.

  • Tools of change: state initiatives, legislation, administrative practices

State Capacity Project Introduction (~59 min) -- Niskansen Center has launched an entire initiative to what they call “state capacity,” which is a term indicating a government’s ability to effect change. The initial paper provides a strong case across a variety of domains how an obsession with efficiency in government has resulted in short term cost savings to the detriment of long term capacity to actually be effective.

  • Tools of change: federal legislation, executive action

Human centered government -- this webpage links to a series of blog posts and case studies by Code for America, the nonprofit leading the movement for digitally native government. The resources showcase how increasing technology talent in government and more agile implementation of programs lead to virtuous cycles of program delivery. This page provides a useful entry point into the civic technology and data for good movements, which have helped catalyze a rise in Chief Data Officer positions, new digital service units across government.

  • Tools of change: personnel and practice changes

All of these approaches emphasize, in various ways, bringing in practices common in the private sector into government and focusing on output/outcomes. NYU GovLab estimated that only one out of every hundred dollars in government spending in the US was backed by rigorous evidence that the program works. Measuring output in the public sector is more difficult than simply tracking profit, however. The debate over what should be outputted is politics.

This shift echoes previous efforts to make government inputs -- the procedures by which money is spent, people are hired and operations are conducted -- more rigorous, something we take for granted today. Over a century ago, a bipartisan Progressive movement implemented practices widely used in the private sector to public administration. Now commonplace practices like professionally managed budgets and well specified job positions were dramatic innovations. Previously governments like the City of New York would simply spend money until they ran out.

"In municipal reform discourse, a gradual but inexorable shift in focus occurred, from meaningful outcome to correct procedure."

-Bureau Men, Settlement Women

Given those existing organizations and initiatives, what areas remain neglected? Why is this an area that EA can make a meaningful difference?


Government reform in the abstract is definitely not neglected. There’s a ton of NGO’s that work on government transparency internationally and also many more that advocate for their particular brand of “reform” in their domestic country. I currently work for a shadow government NGO of sorts in California that was spun up to address the massive governance failures in the state in the late 2000s.

There emphatically is not, however, a concerted, organized effort to deeply investigate and increase state capacity. Organizations often attack the massive, elephant-like state capacity crisis like the proverbial blind man grasping at a part of the elephant and convinced that they’re touching something else. EA could be extremely helpful in deploying moneys, manpower and technological means to galvanize a more concerted movement to improve state capacity. In particular, the focus on effectiveness will be instrumental.

Example grants that could be made to address to increase state capacity

  1. Find and focus on a regional case study to show rather than tell the value of improving state capacity. California would be a good candidate, given the amount of talent, wealth and promise of the place and yet simultaneously the shortcomings of our government and problems here. EA could help invest in and help align existing advocacy organizations.
  2. Provide capital for civic tech organizations to engage in local political advocacy. There are 60+ local civic tech brigades across the US and more around the world. Those organizations are deeply embedded in their community and know what’s working, as well as what’s not. The brigades generally provide technology volunteers to help out their local city governments on discrete projects. Small five figure grants could provide the necessary ingredients for time, space and materials that’s critical for grassroots advocacy. Those organizations would be ideally posed to advocate for modern city operations like the usage of modern analytics and deployment of modern digital interfaces. Just like how fire brigades evolved from volunteer to professionally managed outfits, this type of advocacy would help institutionalize a digitally competent government
  3. Supporting writers, thinkers and others to work on state capacity issues, which it should be noted goes by many different names (supply side progressivism, government reform, twenty first century government yada blada). The growth in Progress Studies and recent effort of Roots in Progress to create a career accelerator for progress studies intellectuals would be a natural fit for this area. This also would be the natural space for digging into how to increase state capacity to enhance the impact of EA’s investment in existing cause areas like biosecurity and global hunger.
  4. Investing in common digital and data infrastructure. Data Collaboratives provide a good model for addressing many challenges. I have long been a believer that much of public data could be better managed like a utility. NYU’s Gov Lab estimates that only one out of every hundred dollars in government investment is backed by rigorous evidence that the program is working. This massive evidence gap calls for creative solutions to lower the cost of high quality evidence by making the data inputs into useful research more accessible.
  5. Experimenting with bounties and market mechanics similar to how dune dot xyz provides a robust marketplace for web3 analysis but for computation social science. That would be a way to potentially close the massive evidence gap and make rigorously measuring the impact of public investment the new normal. Interfluidity has an excellent vision for what we might build: “Ultimately, we should want to generate a reusable, distributed, permanent, and ever-expanding web of science, including conjectures, verifications, modifications, and refutations, and reanalyses as new data arrives. Social science should become a reified public commons. It should be possible to build new analyses from any stage of old work, by recruiting raw data into new projects, by running alternative models on already cleaned-up or normalized data tables, by using an old model's estimates to generate inputs to simulations or new analyses.”

Many of these grants would could be high impact for relatively small five and six figure investment levels. The more infrastructural grants would be larger.

Moving forward a coalition of those willing to explore state capacity as an EA cause area further

I have a ton of various artifacts, many not public, that I’d love to share with EA folks interested in digging deeper into how this unique community can make a big difference in improving state capacity. I’m not sure though the best way to do that?

There’s the forum, the EA discord and coworking space and then also good ole email. I’d love to dig into this topic with other like minds, particularly those who’ve been thinking about improving state capacity with similar tools (tech, operational changes, etc) but in very different contexts.

Maybe folks who are wiser and more experienced in the ways of EA can offer some suggestions on how to operationalize that type of inquiry?

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Strongly agree with all of the fundamental points of this post.

I currently work for a shadow government NGO of sorts in California that was spun up to address the massive governance failures in the state in the late 2000s.

Improving governance in California, I see you like working on the easy problems huh? ;-)

I completely agree governance is the big fundamental problem that underlies most of the others, and that so much impact work is treating the symptoms while ignoring the disease. It strikes me that what's most needed is leaders who can coordinate efforts and point the way forward in tangible ways (your list is a start). Maybe that's you?

so happy you're getting on this train! I'd encourage you to check out https://successfulsocieties.princeton.edu/, an organization that has written hundreds of case studies on bureaucratic transformation and improving state capacity over the past twenty years 

Hi thanks for the note! The link you shared is 404ing however.

Seems like this is the link in question:

https://successfulsocieties.princeton.edu/ (no comma)

Improving state capacity without ensuring the state is aligned to human values is just as bad as working on AI capabilities without ensuring that the AI is aligned to human values. The last few years have drastically reduced my confidence in "state alignment" even in so-called "liberal" democracies.

Agreed. Voting reform and forecasting are already getting attention from some in EA and should be integrated into this larger project IMO.

Lol full alignment of the state is not exactly a historically proud tradition... there were several notable efforts to align all the various sectors for the greater capacity of the state and society, strengthening all involved like how many small sticks bound together forms a much more robust whole.

Good point. So if we can't hope for state alignment then that is an even stronger reason to oppose building state capabilities.

I'm not convinced about tractability, relative to other interventions. 

You write: 

“Government is just by its nature slow, efficient, bureaucratic, complex, convoluted, <insert additional adjectives> and working to change that is just the nature of the game.”

But my actual objection is something you addressed earlier, namely that 

“The complexity and incoherence of our government often make it difficult for us to understand just what that government is doing, and among the practices it most frequently hides from view is the growing tendency of public policy to redistribute resources upward to the wealthy and the organized at the expense of the poorer and less organized.”


What then is actually the point, besides providing lucrative consulting contracts?

I think increasing state capacity in California is hard because the types of state capacity that I think you (and I) would want involve defeating groups of people in law and in bureaucracy who are motivated by both values and economics. They stand to lose a lot of money and the kind of life that they want to live if certain reforms are passed, and would be very motivated to stop what in your view is increased state capacity.

I think you could convince me that the problem is tractable if you showed how you could actually win legislative or bureaucratic victories here, and right now I don't think you could do that.

Here's a sac bee article from a few years back about the water data wars. I'm happy to share some documents from theCaDC.org showing the growth and progress of the initiative: https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article182279056.html

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