12 October 2013

Time for a Product Redesign of Congress

Last week I watched Romeo & Juliet at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater. It was considerably changed – new title, new actors, music and lyrics substituted for lines – but it still ended tragically. Which brings us to Congress.

We have a tendency to see personality as a cause of problems when often it is just another effect of a poorly designed system. People frustrated with products –from poorly designed schools to badly designed software – have bad attitudes.

We don’t normally think of social norms or institutions as inventions, much less as designed. But progress has depended not just on the technological inventions like steam engines and computers but also on social invention like banks and corporations.

The catch-22 of Congress is that while Americans hate Congress, most really like their representative. Only 17% of Americans are content with government while 77% are either angry or frustrated.  The approval level for Congress is not much higher than the margin of sampling error, so it is possible that no one is happy with this product. Dysfunctional government has surpassed the economy as Americans biggest concern. But if the problem is bad people in Congress, why does the average Congressperson win by 33%?

We can blame it on personalities but dysfunctional sounds more like a design problem. 

When a product works poorly and customers hate it, there are a couple of good options.

One is to find a new supplier. While it’s theoretically possible and oddly fascinating to consider outsourcing government to the popular Swedish Social Democrats or the economically successful Chinese Communists, that seems unlikely.

Another option is product redesign. For technological inventions like cars, we do this all the time. By contrast, such an approach is rare for social inventions. Car designers assume at least two things: Benz, Diesel and Ford were geniuses but in the century since they launched their vision onto the world, there have been technology and design advances worth incorporating. The intention of a car has changed little in the last century but its design and performance has. By contrast, Americans cling to social inventions centuries old. If Jefferson, Adams, and friends came forward to 2013 with the same intentions for a representative, modern government it is easy to believe that they would exploit technologies as varied as smart phones, instant polling, brainstorming, collaborative design, video conferencing, and systems simulation.  It is one of the more fascinating things about human nature that we laud revolutionaries who throw off convention and then show our respect for them through slavish imitation. Rather than imitate what they thought we could imitate how they thought.

Here are just a couple of product redesign ideas for Congress.  I’m sure there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of other possibilities and once we start a conversation about product redesign, ideas for redesign will become increasingly sophisticated and appealing.

One is that we’d get past budget stalemates by changing the process in Congress. With 435 members of the House of Representatives, each district should have about 0.2% influence on the final budget. Each representative could submit a budget (perhaps rounded to no more detail than a sum for each department or to the level of programs w/in departments) that would get averaged into the total. No representative or district would have more or less influence over the process than another. The congressman who voted to double defense spending might be offset by the congresswoman who voted to halve it. Every district – whether it represented views the rest of the nation considered radically right or left, anti-environment or anti-war, hugely generous or incredibly stingy – would have equal representation. A similar approach could be defined for taxes. Budget would simply be the product of the averages of each representative – whose votes would be public record. Budget stalemates would be impossible, as would any one district being ignored or getting special concessions.

Another, more radical, re-design possibility would be to go with the money.  Lobbyists rarely (never?) come from just one district. They represent groups who have a shared identity, from interfaith assemblies to pharmaceutical companies to construction workers. Perhaps we could give each American three groups they could elect to represent them, doing away with geographic districts in this age of globalization in which even spouses might live on opposite coasts. People might be better represented by shared interests or worldviews than they are by shared rainfall. We could all have a lobbyist and call them our representative.

The fact is, frustration with Congress is growing. It might be because they are all bums. Or it could be because our representative government is about the only technology we use from the 18th century. Our representative system was designed in a time when it took days for messages to travel from a district to DC. It’s not as though we’re in the political equivalent of a Model T. It’s worse. Our government design assumes we’re in horse drawn carriages.

Perhaps the reason Congress is dysfunctional is not because we keep electing the wrong people any more than Romeo and Juliet ends sadly because they keep casting the wrong actors.  It might be time to consider that Congress is an obsolete design.

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