Why Aren't We Innovating Government?

By Charles Wheelan on May 27, 2016

Many years ago, a graduate student in the public policy program at the University of Chicago asked to meet with me about an idea he was mulling over. The Internet was relatively new, and he reckoned it could be harnessed to bring together communities of civic-minded citizens to improve our public decisions.

His idea was called Policy Tree. I told him I did not think it would work. In particular, if I recall correctly, I was skeptical that the political process would respond to communities of wonks sharing good ideas online.

The student was Andrew Mason. He abandoned Policy Tree and founded a company called Groupon that would eventually go public and earn him hundreds of millions of dollars.

I have often wondered ever since: Why are we innovating at a blistering pace in every field except governance? Making public decisions is arguably the most important thing we do as humans. We do not seem to be getting better at it; we may even be getting worse.

To put this anomaly in perspective, let's take a quick tour of the technological breakthroughs that have occurred in my lifetime. We put a person on the moon. (Yes, I'm that old.) We invented the personal computer and the Internet – putting all the knowledge ever created instantly at our fingertips. We have sequenced the human genome and cloned living creatures. And so on. You get the point.

Now let's contrast that to our domestic political situation. I'm not referring to the candidates. (Yes, that's a problem.) I'm referring more generally to the rules and processes we use to make our democratic decisions. Where do those candidates come from, and how do we determine whose ideas get adopted?

Our political institutions don't feel much like the personal computer or the Internet. We have two old and insipid political parties – the younger of which (the Republicans) was founded in 1854. Yes, our shiniest, newest political party was founded just before the Civil War.

We choose our candidates in party primaries, despite the fact that the fastest-growing political group in America is independents, who are often excluded from those primaries. Do the math: Forty-three percent of Americans describe themselves as independent, yet there are only two independents in the U.S. Senate. If the system were truly representative, there would be at least 40.

Most of our elections have no runoffs, meaning that a candidate can win a crowded race with less than a majority – as little as 25 or 30 percent of the vote. We choose a president through the convoluted Electoral College, which gives more weight to votes in some states than others and does not even ensure that the candidate with the most votes wins. (See George W. Bush in 2000.) Most student council elections are more sophisticated than that.

The congressional districts in most states look like they were drawn by 4-year-olds playing with crayons. Of course, the process is actually far more volitional than that. Whatever political party controls the state legislature cleverly draws the districts after every census to maximize the number of congressional seats they will control. If the purpose of democracy is to represent accurately the preferences of voters, these gerrymandered districts are the opposite of innovation.

The First Amendment was a radical innovation for its time, guaranteeing free political speech. More recently, we've invented the super PAC. Which do you find more impressive?

Even innovations in other realms of life, such as cable television and suburbanization, have had pernicious effects on our public decision-making. We have sorted ourselves in ways that make us more isolated and less empathetic. The automobile made suburbs possible, which in turn have allowed us to cluster around others who look and think like we do.

When I was growing up, there were only three major channels and no TV remote control; I had to get off the couch to change the channel. Now we have hundreds of channels, one of which will deliver whatever news we need to reinforce our preexisting ideological beliefs.

When George Washington was elected, it would take weeks for news from the capital to reach parts of the young nation, and then a few more weeks for a reply. Now it is easier than ever for politicians to communicate with voters and for citizens to communicate with one another. Isn't it sadly ironic that instant communication makes it impossible for us to pull off something as impressive as the Constitutional Convention? The first news reports of compromise – the essential ingredient for great public achievements – would inspire partisans to sabotage the whole thing.

Our international institutions are worse, despite the fact that many of our most serious challenges are global in nature: terrorism, refugees, nuclear proliferation, human trafficking, climate change. The United Nations is ineffectual and anachronistic. The Security Council – the only U.N. body with any real teeth – has five permanent members: the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France.

Congrats to those countries for winning World War II, but the world has moved on. The U.N. Security Council has no permanent representatives from South America or Africa. There is no seat for the world's largest democracy (India) or two of the largest economies (Germany and Japan).

Why is the system not keeping up, let alone improving? One obvious explanation is that entrepreneurs can't get rich by making democracy better. Andrew Mason made Groupon work (enabling consumers to come together to negotiate cheaper prices on everything from manicures to boxing classes). There was no obvious revenue stream for Policy Tree.

It's also true that institutions are hard to change. The institutions themselves have to acquiesce to reform. For example, adding new permanent members to the Security Council requires the consent of the Security Council, which can be vetoed by any single member who does not want its power diluted. Changing voting laws (e.g. reforming the process for drawing congressional districts) often requires a referendum or a constitutional amendment.

But the biggest impediment may simply be that for decades we have demeaned and diminished governance – the process by which we make communal decisions. We scorn compromise. We spend little time thinking or talking about electoral processes. (Is it not weird that the candidate with the most votes may not become president?) We have far too little respect for how hard it is to get millions of people to agree on anything.

I have begun to use the phrase "political philanthropy." Two hundred years ago, altruistic Americans devoted time and money to build parks, museums and universities – public goods the market was not adequately providing. Now America has different needs. People of influence can have the greatest impact by devoting their time and resources to refining our political institutions. Do you want to make life better for your grandchildren's generation? Help fix the American political system (and maybe the U.N., too).

If we can invent a self-driving car, we can surely make it easier for the political process to more accurately capture and act on the preferences of voters.



Editor's note: this article originally appeared in U.S News and World Report