5 Questions

Redesign Democracy

September 18, 2014          

Episode Summary

Today’s democratic system in the United States is largely the same as that instituted in 1789 under our first president, George Washington. This much-celebrated system is based on the original democracy from ancient Athens, established almost 2,000 years earlier. Fast forward to 2014. Congressional approval is at a record low, hovering around 10%. Partisanship seems to permeate every crevice of our government. Examples of government waste and questionable policies far outnumber examples of government being good and effective. OK, so that perception might have something to do with the media, but the bottom line is our federal government is operating in a way that very few of us are satisfied with.

In this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss how we might find a better way. Combining common, everyday technologies with a new concept of who should represent us, Dirk Knemeyer provides a vision to redesign democracy into a system more appropriate for the realities of 2014 while moving closer to its philosophical origins.

Welcome to episode 69 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Hey folks.

Today we’re going to get into some exciting stuff. As we enter the mid-term election season and our nation turns its eyes towards selecting the people who will be, ostensibly, guiding our country forward, it’s worth considering the shape of our democratic process. Our democracy was designed and created through a series of documents over 200 years ago, and after the Florida recount and Bush v. Gore, a lot of designers and user experience folks looked to improve the democratic process through things like improved ballot design, for instance. We have a much more radical idea for you today, brought to you by one of our radical, innovative social thinkers, social futurists, here. That’s Dirk; and he has a great idea for the redesign of democracy. That’s what we’re going to be concentrating on today. Dirk, I want to start off the program by asking you, why do you think that democracy needs a redesign?

All through my adult life, I’ve had issues with this. When I was 18, I actually told people in that brief window in my life that I wanted to be a politician when I grew up. As a senior in high school, thanks to the very grassroots nature of it, I was pretty high up in the hierarchy in the state of Ohio for the presidential campaign of Jerry Brown. This is 1992. Of course, now Jerry Brown is governor of California again for the umpteenth time, here in 2014.

In 1992, I was a very active volunteer. I organized an event – “organized” is the wrong word. I was the lead person for a big event he had when he visited Cleveland; I was involved in an event he had in Toledo; I did some liaison work with the people in Columbus. Interestingly, this was all happening as a high school senior, which was cool, right? I’m driving around the state and doing all this stuff, because Jerry Brown is grassroots, and a high school senior can get involved at that level.

After Jerry Brown lost, after Bill Clinton won the democratic nomination, I wanted to still stay involved, because politics was something that I really wanted to be core to my life, and to what I did. I didn’t want to back Bill Clinton; I actually was interested in getting behind the older Bush in 1992, contacted the Republican party in the city, and said, “Hey, what can I do, are there any jobs?” They had seen me and kind of knew about me, because I was really active with Jerry Brown. They’re like, “Yeah, we could definitely find something for you.”

They had this immediate job that would’ve been really cool; but after I talked to him, he called me back a few days later. He said, “We talked to National, and they said there’s no fucking way we can have a Jerry Brown guy working on our campaign.” That moment so disillusioned me on politics, because here I am, this young, innocent upstart, who really just wants to do good, who believes in things and wants to put their time behind it, and help make things happen; and I’m being told that because of a previous association with a legitimate candidate that pulled 20% of the vote in their party, that I was going to be discounted. At that point, I basically pivoted and decided I was going to do something other than politics with my life, and life went on.

In more recent years, I, like many Americans, have been troubled by the partisan nature of politics. It is most evident in Congress. Congress, at this point, has an approval rating of less than 10%. For the American public, in our evaluation of our satisfaction with the people who represent us in the Legislature at the national level, less than 10% of us are happy with that. To me, that screams “situation in need of a redesign.” Because I’m disgruntled, and see that the vast majority of other people are, I said, “This is really the time when a design approach needs to be brought to bear.”

Yeah, I agree with you insofar as this Congress seems not only partisan, but highly unproductive. I don’t know if they’re the least productive Congress ever, but they are certainly at the bottom of the barrel as far as getting things done. That’s frustrating from the perspective that there is a big world out there, and there are lots of folks … There are lots of countries who are moving their agendas forward, and we’re just seemingly unable to do the same thing here.

Yeah, absolutely. Part of it is, it’s difficult to get people … There’s a reason why religion, sex, and politics, RSP, are often moved out of conversations, and moved into a space where, with people who you like but not necessarily agree with, you don’t want to touch those topics. People, even in more mundane areas, have a hard time getting on the same page, working together. When you move it into the RSP, it’s totally exacerbated, and so difficult for people to come together and to make things happen, just in general. Obviously, at this moment in time, in the context of the Legislature of the United States, it’s a total failure.

Now that we’ve identified the problem little bit, which I know that our listeners are well familiar with already, let’s talk a little bit about some of the ideas that you have for a redesign of democracy. I just want to mention to our listeners that, in addition to the show that we’re doing today, Dirk has also written up this lovely piece that is going to be featured on our website; an in-depth piece describing everything from the origins of our current system, as well as giving detail about the solution that we’re going to describe today. You can check out the article at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com.

Without further ado, let’s get a little bit into the different elements that make up your solution, Dirk.

Right. To get to the solution, I’ll go through a little bit of the process getting there. Of course, I started with research, and there are a number of assumptions that I made, a number of things that my intuition was telling me, but I really wanted to dig in and understand better. Where I started was looking at the things like the approval rating in Congress, of course, which we talked about before, but other facts of the democracy today; the relationship between how many people represent us in the national Legislature versus how many citizens there are in the United States, what’s the relationship there.

Looking at all that kind of data, looking at, as well, testing assumptions. When our current model was put together, one of the things that was really important was balancing the power of the federal government versus the state government. That was a really big deal, and it’s why we have this somewhat strange system with the Senate and the House, and the compositions in the House, in particular, it’s very funky how that is all figured out; but it’s done to balance population and influence between the two sides.

However, what I learned as I looked at that with a more critical eye is that the politicians who are representing these states, and who are nominally being forwarded as beholden to those geographic areas, they’re actually receiving their funding from outside the state. For example, the current Speaker of the House, more than 80% of the funding he gets for reelection in his little congressional district in the state of Ohio, it’s more than 80% of the funding that comes from outside the state; so it’s national interests, it’s special interests, that are funding these people. The whole ideal of, “Oh, these are representatives of this small group of people” is just nonsense. It’s not the reality of how the dynamic works. Really dug in to understand stuff like that, about how it’s really operating today.

The other thing I did, because I tend to come at problems from a very big-picture, blue sky, I throw out all assumptions, I’m really interested in innovating; so I went back and looked at, first of all, democracy historically. Began in ancient Greece, in Athens, and studied it from that point through to when it was established here in the United States in 1789, and then forward again to the present day.

I also was interested in looking at other democratic forms – or, excuse me, other forms of government. We’ve fallen on democracy, and democracy seems right, but I wanted to test that assumption. I put a great deal of time into researching other forms – forms that have been tried and abandoned, forms that haven’t been tried at all; and was looking for another way. Coming out of this process, then, of studying how it’s working in America today, studying the history of democracy, studying these other forms, I think for this moment in time, if we take all the assumptions of equality and civil rights and the foundations upon which the United States is built on, absent from – or, not necessarily democracy, but as manifest in democracy – given all of those assumptions, the democracy is probably the right way to go.

Started there, and from there identified how to fix it, and what the way to fix it is, which were the next steps.

Right. There’s a couple of different components to this redesign that you dig into in the article. Generally speaking, for two branches of government, you more or less say, “Hey, I think those are working.” Correct me if I’m wrong, Dirk, but you think the presidential process and the court system, the Supreme Court, that those two branches more or less can stay the way they are.

Yeah. On the executive level, the President … We know anecdotally from our lives in the business world that a CEO, having an ultimate chief executive, is an important function. Even at a smaller level, whenever there’s projects that involve more people, it becomes herding cats. Whenever you’re trying to make something great out of a committee, you get design by consensus, and that’s always at best, bland; at worst, awful. There is a need to have a person that, for some segment of things that need to happen, is able to be decisive, move quickly, make informed decisions. That’s working pretty well.

On the judicial side, it’s also working pretty well. We could go through the different aspects that make it up, whether it be appointing by the President, confirmation by the Congress, whether it be the lifetime appointment; there’s certainly ways we could pick it apart and redesign it, but it’s not the big blistering sore. It’s really the Legislature that’s the problem. It’s the Legislature that is fueling the partisan politics, it’s the Legislature that we almost unanimously agree is not doing a good job. That was really the place to focus.

One of the interesting things that I learned in my research is that over 70% of the people who serve in the Legislature are attorneys, are career politicians, are business people, or people who already work in the government. That’s over 70%. There’s less than 1% of the people who are scientists. There’s less than 1% of the people who are engineers. Now, we live in a period of history where the world, and the things in the world, are massively complex, massively dangerous, really hard; yet we have a homogeneous collection of people who are making the laws, who are having the conversations, who are expected to do the research and provide the insight that manifests in the way that our government works and functions, and that’s crazy. That is just absolutely crazy.

So first of all, that’s nuts, and that has to change. One. Two, who is that? The reason for it is those are the people who are able to be elected. They’re the people who are interested in being elected, given the realities of what being someone in the Legislature means; but then, of the people who raise their hand, they’re the ones who are able to be elected, and so it’s no surprise that business people, who generally are ambitious, aggressive, pragmatic, can makes things happen, that they’re going to be in the mix. That career politicians are going to be in the mix. That lawyers, who are good at arguing, manipulating, cynically, that they’re going to be in the mix.

At the same time, all these very bright people, all these thoughtful people, who have a different perspective, who have a fresh way of looking at the world and the situations they might be faced with, are kept out. To me, that was really, really core; so a big part of what I’m proposing is essentially rebooting the Legislature, and moving to a model where — and this will get to some of the technology stuff we’ll talk in a bit — combining with a new way of looking at voting and using technology, combining that with some type of presidential appointment that is similar in some ways to how the Supreme Court is chosen, that we change our approach, and we bring the best people in.

Some of the examples I used in the article are, what would it be like if Clara Barton were helping to make good decisions for us? What would it be like if humanitarians were part of the mix? It’s not just people who have one way of looking at the world, it’s not just people who have a certain set of skills and backgrounds, but a much broader set of thinkers and doers and people to represent us. That’s a big part of what I’m proposing.

How do those experts become part of this new, model Congress? What’s the selection process for that?

Let me talk about the technology stuff, because that circles back to the selection process. The other big idea here is that democracy, that the democratic process as it was designed by the Founding Fathers, was designed in a way that allowed a country with many thousands of people to be represented. They came up with the voting system, where you vote in this legislature that makes the laws … Well, that debates, writes the laws, votes on the laws, and handles the whole process. That was necessary in a time where … Today, in 24 hours, we can go around the world. Back then, in 24 hours, you could go 30 miles down the road. Today, we can communicate media in real time around the world in milliseconds; then, it took weeks to send a paper letter from Maine to Georgia, and it wasn’t even possible to send images or audio, or anything else, essentially.

We’re in this new context now, where the constraints, the communication and information constraints upon which the process of having a legislature, of having the democratic representation of the citizens manifest in how the laws are made and executed, those don’t exist anymore. So what I focused on is the fact that the smartphone, first of all, has all of the features necessary for someone to be directly active in the voting process. We could be sent a bill on our phone that we could read in its entirety. We could be sent with the bill, in real time, opinions on it from analysts who represent the things that we’re interested in; so if we’re interested in civil rights, or gun control, or reducing spending, or whatever the things that we think are important, we could get recommendations from analysts in real time as to how a bill would impact those things.

Then, of course, the phone also gives us the power to vote. In the smartphone, we have all of the technology necessary to be fully informed actors in a direct democratic process. Also crucial to this is the fact that smartphones are becoming slowly ubiquitous. When I started this research in Q3 of 2013, 53% of American adults had a smartphone. In January, that number had increased to 58%, in January of 2014, and it’s a number that will keep increasing. We already have a lot of people with these devices.

The current, outdated voting infrastructure is terribly expensive, so if we’re redirecting costs … I don’t have numbers here, and this is where this is a thought piece as opposed to a specific implementation plan; but money could be redirected, and we could provide purpose-driven voting devices that are maybe much similar than smartphones, but could be freely released to citizens to participate in this process. You now have this model where we can be the people who are confirming Supreme Court justices, who voting on laws and bills.

That ties back, then, to the idea of this new enlightened Legislature. Their charter can be more limited. Their job is to research and discuss and write wonderful legislation, things that will move us farther ahead, things that are thinking more holistically. Things that are ultimately in our better interests, and then we, the people, will be the ones who vote on it. It’s us voting on the Legislature that these very intelligent people have collaborated and come together to make.

Then in the appointment process, getting to your original question, the President can recommend person A or person B or person C, and it’s up to us to appoint them, to approve or reject those appointments, and they can serve for a period of time. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of ideas behind, and parts to, the system; but at the end of the day, it boils down to have an enlightened Legislature that’s very broad and represents our best and brightest, not just the people who are most electable. Second, shift the voting aspect of their responsibilities to the citizenry. Democracy is intended to be direct representation. The fact that it’s not is a product of the ratio of citizens to what can be done, and particularly the communication limitations of times long now in the past.

I believe if this could be put into place, that we would see a transformation in the effectiveness of our government, as well as, I would propose, the productivity of the citizenry. If we feel that we own this process more, if it’s not the fat cats on Capitol Hill deciding our fate, I think that it will make people more confident, it will make people more bought into this country that we share, and have all of these positive unintended consequences for the good of us as individuals and collectively.

Yeah, I think that’s a really smart analysis, Dirk. Just to back up some of your claims around this kind of direct representation, there are some early experiments in, we’ll call it, “complete democracy,” or a more complete democracy, that are happening at the municipal level in large … In particular, I’m thinking of a city in Brazil that involves all of its citizens in voting on decisions. I know, for instance, in New England, on a very much smaller scale, you have what’s called the Town Meeting, where, for instance, in Arlington, where our studio is based, everyone in the town can have input into the financial decisions, the budget, and how the town operates.

On both that small scale, which is the Town Meeting, and then the larger city or municipality, these sorts of experiments are happening. Granted, we’re talking about a much larger population, but as you pointed out, the context has shifted so dramatically from the initial conditions in which our democracy was seeded that now we have this opportunity to iterate and improve, and do what America does so well, which is innovate.

The Founding Fathers had these Enlightenment philosophy ideas that influenced their initial cut at democracy. As a nation, if we are the natural inheritors of our Founding Fathers, we should have it within us to overcome the inertia of the current system, which is clearly broken, and be able to build on those same philosophical underpinnings, but marry it with these wonderful technologies, many of which have their origins in this country to begin with, and create something greater for the next 250-plus years.

Amen, brother, I couldn’t have put it better myself.

I’m really excited about the digital layout of this piece, because in it, we have our friend and business partner, Juhan Sonin, designed a series of screens for the smartphone that depict this system, this voting system, that you imagined. Could you talk a little bit about that application, and what the purpose is, really, of this concept car version of this bill voting system?

Definitely. Making a prototype like this is really what makes it all real. The ideas are interesting, and certainly, when interspersed with the data, and seeing it in juxtaposition to the things that are broken or the bad assumptions that are made, it can be enlightening; but the prototype really helps to ground it, and takes it from, “Okay, these are some interesting ideas,” to “Wow, I can see this and touch it, and it might really be real.” The prototype is just going through the handful of top level screens. What might it look like when a bill comes? What does a bill look like, delivered to you on the phone? At a high level, how could you navigate around in it? How do you get more information about it from analysts? How does the phone have a feedback mechanism with the user? How do we get biometrics into there?

Then, of course, voting. What’s voting like, how could that look? How could that be done in a way that would be accessible and effective? Putting together a prototype of that is just part of, from our perspective of tackling this as a design firm, saying, “Here’s a total solution. Not just some ideas, but really a vision of how it could manifest as well,” which is what we love to do.

Yeah, that’s right. In its totality, this is a well-formed idea, and we’ve put it out there for the world to see. Ultimately, what do you want people to get out of this essay, this article, this idea? What sort of action, or what are you hoping to catalyze here, Dirk?

I’m hoping to catalyze more than a conversation. A conversation’s part of it, but I’m hoping to catalyze a total rejection of the current system. I’m hoping that seeing these ideas gets people, first of all, just saying, “We don’t have to take this anymore,” but then starting from that point, and hopefully getting to a point where people don’t just say they won’t take it anymore, they literally are not willing to take it anymore. Then, getting into conversations about what a solution should be.

I do believe in my heart, and I designed this from the standpoint, that this is a solution that would work. It solves a lot of problems, and it would be way better than what we have now. I don’t think it would be perfect, I think there would be some unintended issues that would have to be worked through; but hey, let’s get started, at least. Let’s get something out there and going, because we know what we have now is wrong.

The ultimate solution is going to be one that takes a lot of voices, it’s going to be one that takes a lot of compromise, that takes a lot of balancing disparate forces, some of which I don’t care about. There’s a lot of money and a lot of business interests that are really incentivized to keep the current system in place, and I don’t care about them. I’ve come up with this basically saying, “To hell with them.” However, getting to a true solution, they’re going to be part of the process. Maybe a dysfunctional part, but a part nonetheless.

This is intended to get people to say, “Wow, we really don’t have to just tolerate this like sheep anymore.” There’s radically better ways that we have the technology in place, or with just some extra investments in infrastructure, to make happen and make real. Here’s one idea, but hey, I have an even better idea, that was sparked there but is taking it farther.

At the end of the day, in a perfect world, the government is radically redesigned in ways that may look nothing like what I’m proposing, but this piece very humbly attempts to be a fire starter, and be something that waves the flags out there and says, “Hey, this is really broken and bad, and we have the power and the wisdom and the insight, we do, all of us, to make it better.”

This is a great spark to get that fire started, Dirk. I was just thinking, this is, if we want to call it, “the next iteration of American democracy.” In the tech world, you always put a version number, so for American Democracy V2, this is our proposal. Authored by Dirk, of course. We’d love, listeners, to get your feedback on this, your criticism, your thoughts. You can go to the site, G-O-I-N-V-O.com, that’s goinvo.com, and you can get in touch with us on Twitter as well. We’ll give you those handles in a second.

This is the time, this is the mid-term elections, which are contentious and are going to be sucking all the air out of the news cycle. You’re going to put on your cable news channel of choice, and 24/7 they are going to be analyzing and giving commentary on the moves that our political parties make, all within the current framework, which is depleted and kind of sad. Rather than focus entirely on that during this election cycle, we challenge you to think beyond the current system, and maybe take a look at Dirk’s piece here, and start a larger conversation.

Absolutely. The one thing I really want to emphasize is, give yourself the space to think big. When I was talking with friends of mine in UX, who are involved in designing government, who are doing wonderful work in government, they’re very negative; they are seeing all of the little barriers, the barriers that, because they’re way down deep in the trenches, they’re struggling to overcome in their work every day.

This is not a moment for incremental change. What we have is totally, totally wrong, and so we need to step back, and really go big, and say, “How do we clear out this 70-plus percent of suits and bureaucrats, and how do we replace them with the sort of people we admire and look up to, and who really would be good representatives for us? How do we take the technology that is making so much money, that is so important in our lives in largely superficial ways, and leverage that to be a catalyst to change?”

If we allow ourselves to think big, and not hold ourselves back with the concerns that are very relevant to people doing good work that is incremental work, that’s how we can really make a difference. Indulge yourself a little bit, and maybe the world will be better for it.

Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com – that’s just one “l” in thedigitalife – and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, or have a conversation with us on Twitter, you can follow me at jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com; that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter at dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, email me at dirk@knemeyer.com, or read me, dirk.knemeyer.com.

That’s it for episode 69 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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