Why Our Government and Schools Are Doomed

Despite all the talk of Government 2.0 and transparency, is it really possible to change the current system from within to tackle the challenges of our day? Perhaps not. One leading expert has expressed serious doubts.

We can succeed only by concert. It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. – Abraham Lincoln, Address to Congress, December 1862

Why is it that we seem completely ill-equipped to handle the central issues of our time? I believe it is because we misunderstand the nature of design and execution and in important, tangible ways we have abandoned design in favor of only execution. This has removed an important weapon from our arsenal, and it is unclear that we can afford to live in our world without it.

Design vs. Execution

What do I mean by Design (big D) in the context of government? The founding fathers were designers. They set out to imagine a governmental mechanism that would outlive them and ensure the core values that they held dear. So, in a real sense the American constitution (and all such similar instruments) is a design object, and executing against it produces a variety of effects. Most of these effects are positive (free speech, equal protection, etc), while some are negative (a silly disproportionate influence of corporations in politics, corporate personhood).

Execution, by contrast, is the everyday operating of the governmental machine as it was designed. This includes the daily activity of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, and the like. Sometimes these entities engage in design behavior (making laws, interpreting them, creating policy, setting precedent by imprisoning people without trial) but mostly they do the quotidian business of government: services, revenue collection, law enforcement.

Our government is now 234 years old. Is it possibly time to reconsider some of its basic precepts? Could we possibly engage in new, first-principles design work that would alleviate some of the most undesirable effects of our system?

Arguments Against New Design Activity

James Fallows in a recent article in The Atlantic suggests that the cumulative corrosion of so many special interests on the machine of government has brought it to a standstill. He suggests that it may be time for something like a new Constitutional Convention, but points out that any attempt to conduct such a convention would be a freak-show of unprecedented proportion, and he’s probably right. If you think the special interests are bad now, wait til you give them an opportunity to participate in a founding document!

In the state of Maryland, every 20 years we have the opportunity to vote to have a constitutional convention. This year is one of those years. But while some are calling for such a convention, most politicians consider it “an exercise in futility,” citing cost as the key factor. Why cost? Because so many people would need to be involved.

But this is surely a bad state of affairs. The Maryland constitution is huge, much bigger than the US Constitution, a burden on everyone that has to execute against it, and loaded with unintended effects. Yet, the critics are probably right: if we approach our design activities with the same appeal to the lowest common denominator as we have our execution activity, a new design would be a circus.

Fallows and Maryland Senate President Mike Miller both suggest that we plod along with our broken foundations because it is the only moral thing to do and even though we may have a tough time executing our way out of our design shortcomings.

Gaining Clarity About Design vs. Execution

A few days ago I wrote a blog post about how our educational system is broken, and at the end I cited several bullet points suggesting “core values” for the design of a new system.

Several people shot back in the comments with ways in which the current system does embrace some of the core values that I suggested, at least some of the time.

And it has struck me: we’re talking about two different things. I was talking about a new, imagined design. Some people thought I was talking about how the current system needed to change its execution. Those are two very different things and it began to dawn on me: our historic aversion to new design activity has caused us to push Design Thinking out of our political debate entirely.

Today, all political debate is around execution (activity) and not design (legacy).

We Must Disenthrall Ourselves

Lincoln said it best in 1862. We must disenthrall ourselves; disenthrall ourselves with the strengths of our system’s design, and disenthrall ourselves with the notions of the past. In order to move past where we are, we need to engage in new, imaginative design thinking and do something with it.

While new constitutional conventions are probably not the most productive approach, we must make ourselves open again to talking about design activity and understand the difference between execution and design. We must try to understand how we can conduct design activity through execution of our current system, and we must gain clarity about the limits of that prospect.

It is entirely possible that we cannot meaningfully affect the design of our system by execution alone; we may need to appoint some Great People to revise our system in a way that we all can live with. While this is a frightening thought when considered from inside the confines of our current government, it may well be necessary.

Jefferson anticipated this conundrum and believed occasional revolution would be necessary. Can we prove that we’ve learned something from his design and rise to the challenge of repairing it without bloodshed?

Thanks to Sir Ken Robinson, from whom I stole this very apropos Lincoln quote which he cited in his recent talk at TED 2010.

Public Life Without Politics

This week saw the ending of a tragic saga that has been decades in the making. Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon negotiated a plea agreement to obtain Probation Before Judgment in which she promised to resign as mayor within 30 days. She entered an Alford plea, in which she did not admit guilt but admitted that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to convict her.

But the real story here isn’t about Dixon; it is about the long-term systemic abandonment of public life by the American citizenry.

And I use that term loosely. Americans take a cynical eye towards civics and citizenship. Public servants are routinely portrayed as buffoons and as half-witted wards of the state. Politicians are universally derided as corrupt, megalomaniacal, and intensely self-interested. Depending on the election, Americans vote in anemic numbers. Children are no longer seriously raised with the idea that civic engagement or public service is a kind of higher calling.

We are now consumers of politics rather than participants in civic life. And the accompanying “fanboyism” that we see in consumer behavior has effectively destroyed intelligent political discourse. Presumably somewhere out there there is a sticker of Calvin Elephant pissing on a Democrat Donkey. Enough.

The Dilemma of the American City

A confluence of factors over the last 90 years has drawn people from the urban core to the suburbs: air quality, the invention of the automobile, the Great Depression, unchecked suburban planning, school policy, racial prejudice and realignment, blockbusting profiteers, the end of urban manufacturing, ineffective urban planning, drug use, tax imbalances, poor transportation infrastructure, and incompetent city governments.

This has resulted in cities that have neither the tax base nor the level of civic engagement required to operate. The politicians do not have the skill or vision to initiate meaningful change. The population wants improvement and change but is often unwilling to exchange their short term interest for any long-term good. Surrounding jurisdictions point fingers at the city, and the problems become self-reinforcing. For each day that our cities slog on in dysfunction, the more people are convinced that dysfunction is a permanent and intractable condition.

To change things in the long term, we need to attract people back into our cities. And there are workable strategic reasons why this is possible: cities provide real competitive advantage, particularly for industries based on ideas and information.

Urban Feudalism

It is not a coincidence that the graft case against Dixon was centered around her relationship with multiple developers. This 2008 City Paper article gives a good sense of the shadowy web of relationships surrounding the Mayor, her predecessor, and developers.

It requires a special kind of optimism to think that the gift cards, cash, and other baubles that Dixon received were anything other than bribes. While it is laudable to offer her the benefit of the doubt, the reality is that she did receive these gifts from developers. And developers have more impact on the design and function of our city than any other single business constituency.

While we can defend Dixon’s sincere love for her city, her ambitious agenda, her mostly-functional administration, and her political bravery, the tragic truth is that she fell victim to the inherent flaws of the very place that made her. The culture of personal gain over civic duty is pervasive and inescapable in Baltimore. And the government accurately reflects the values of its people.

Our cities plod along, hostage to the special interests and powerful “players” to whom we have consigned our urban future. We have enabled and continue to refine a new system of urban feudalism, its landscape populated by warlords each concerned with their own particular brand of self-interest. There is precious little difference between a corner drug dealer and the Mayor of Baltimore when everybody’s on the take.

A Path to Recovery

It is easy to complain about American public life and politics, and real solutions are hard to find. James Fallows argues in this Atlantic Monthly article that while the American system of government has been horribly hamstrung by special interests, the only hope we have is continued engagement. He argues that we cannot divorce public life and the private sector, as both fail when that happens.

I believe there may be yet another pathway forward, inspired by the great American thinker and architect Buckminster Fuller’s quote: “You never change things by changing the existing reality. Instead, build a new model that makes the existing reality obsolete.” If there is a way forward it is in this direction.

Public Life Without Politics

We have become accustomed to the idea that participation in public life comes only in the form of elected office or through lumbering nonprofit organizations. But there is an emergent form of public engagement centered around alignment behind ideas. The Internet has enabled likeminded people to converge both online and in the real world to achieve amazing goals, all without the burdens of machine politics and the slow-moving governance of nonprofits.

American cities offer an exceptionally strong opportunity for our country to return to competitiveness on the world stage. Compact, efficient, and diverse, our cities are platforms upon which we can design an economic life predicated on two key core values: respect for place, and respect for people and their time.

If we truly love our place and our people, competitive advantage will flow naturally from there. Embracing our cities is a pro-business agenda. It’s a future where everyone wins.

An Apolitical Future

Until recently, the flow of information to citizens has been imperfect and incomplete, and political parties have acted as proxies to enable people with similar values to coalesce.

But as information flow becomes more perfect and attitudinal alignment can occur in higher-resolution ways, political parties may no longer be effective channels for achieving important public goals.

To the extent that people can rally around goals and achieve real results using apolitical modern organizing efforts, we may find that the future of public life lies in individual action rather than in elected office or in nonprofit organizations.

Our country’s future demands that we find the answer.