Ben Smithgall

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Software and data at Spotify. Previously with U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.

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The Fifth Risk

By Michael Lewis

Finished reading on May 22, 2019

Michael Lewis has a real knack for prose – one of his reviewers claims that he would read a 4,000 page history of the stapler were it written by Lewis, and it’s easy to understand why. Lewis surely has a knack for humanizing and explaining complex problems.

Reflecting on my time in government, Lewis has found some of the same behaviors: the government does all sorts of critical things, but it does it quietly and behind the scenes. In some cases, I learned, there are instances where the government is expressly forbidding from advertising their expertise. Lewis makes an interesting observation that contrasts the relative popularity of NASA against the far less well-known NOAA, and attributes part of the different to the fact that NASA is not forbidding by law from doing some basic marketing.

He also does get to the fact that fear of headlines drives a lot of risk-adverse behavior, especially in the higher-level officials that he spends most of the book profiling. I have seen examples of this driving agency culture and decision-making.

I wish Lewis would spend more time unpacking the titular “Fifth Risk,” which is identified as “project management.” He spends a lot of time talking about how there is no one driving the bus (the vast majority of politically-appointed positions are still unfilled), but he doesn’t really talk about how that affects the way that 1) agencies choose which projects to pursue and 2) the effect of not pursuing those projects. This is an area ripe for exploration, especially on the digital side where much of the actual work is done by contractors.

I hope that this isn’t Lewis’s last foray into the world of government; there are so many avenues waiting for exploration by someone with his talent and reach.

★★★★☆