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.


#1 Ray Wenderlich on 02.17.10 at 2:22 pm

It does seem that many of our systems are outdated and were simply designed for a different era. And our government has grown far too large and costly over the years, yet it is politically difficult to decrease its size due to all of the special interests. It would be nice to be able to start from the ground up.

I don't know what could rally the country around making a radical change like this without some sort of major crisis though…

#2 avdi on 02.17.10 at 2:37 pm

I have far more hope for parallel systems which eventually render the existing systems irrelevant, than I do for Big Design Up Front.

These days when contemplating systemic change I take Linux and FLOSS as an inspiration. No one set out to centrally redefine the IT landscape – and if they had, Linux would have been the last thing they would have come up with. They would have come up with something clean and well-designed and doomed like OS/2.

Instead, sysadmins simply started to install Linux in back offices and server racks, because it was cheap, or because it was fun, or because they could tweak it. Now there isn't an IT company in this country which doesn't depend on Linux and FLOSS in some way, whether their upper management knows (or cares) or not. Linux won in the server room by being expedient and growing from the grassroots.

In a country with as entrenched establishments as we have, my bet is on grassroots alternatives, not on central redesign.

#3 davetroy on 02.17.10 at 5:26 pm

Avdi — I agree that building new models to make old ones obsolete is a great idea (echoes of Bucky Fuller) but I wonder if we can really do that with the government itself.

The notion that we can peel off some aspects of society, like schools, and implement new models there does hold some promise. I think that approach should be taken wherever it's possible.

But, the notion that we simply cannot discuss the prospect of design in government is very depressing. And I'm not talking about Big Central Design, but some kind of third way that lets us attack design more effectively than we do now.

Right now we have a fundamentalist approach which has turned design activity into a third rail, and it's not productive.

#4 Courtney on 02.17.10 at 6:07 pm

I think you have touched on a key issue, our current education system trains to execute but not to design. In University level science I am performing and writing about experiments designed by others, just as I have been forced to consume and regurgitate other people's ideas since I started going to school.

#5 md2010admin on 02.18.10 at 1:45 pm

Hello, Dave. Glad to see your interest in the possibility of the MD Constitutional Convention. If you have any suggestions or thoughts on it I would be interested in hearing them.
(P.S. I was a customer of yours years ago when you had your computer store and offered internet access.)

#6 Shannon on 02.18.10 at 8:50 pm

The core issue here is not so much a lack of original thought, but a disinterest in reaching for original thought. In all of my pursuits from IT to marketing and furniture design I have seen the same central principle that you bring up: how to execute the design not how to create a new form or design. It seems that we have become so plug and play and cut and paste that we have lost the ability to start with a blank page. I'm afraid that the only way out of this killer loop is a revolution of sorts. Unfortunately with the modern conveniences and comfort that this country allows us, that revolution might only occur with a catastrophic catalyst and I don't think anyone wants to wish for that. This is one of those topics that begs for lots of comments and very little in the way of solutions. I wish I could add a solution, but thank you for this post. Great thoughts!

#7 John Cutonilli on 02.19.10 at 7:01 am

Our government and schools are only doomed if we do not get involved and change things. The current problem with government is that they see design and execution as independent steps. They are not independent. Design is an iterative process that involves execution and the evaluation of that execution. Governments love to design things, they sit around and pontificate about just about everything. They then try and execute and find that there are all kinds of unintended consequences. This leads to ever more pontification. They fail to realize that we don’t know enough to predict the future. We can do a reasonable job at predicting the past and can use this information to predict the future, but the prediction is only good if the future behaves like the past. If we want a different future, we cannot rely on the past for guidance.

The iterative design approach is not new we have been using it as a learning tool for more than a thousand years. It is an adaptation of the scientific method. We actually use this approach a lot to facilitate change, but tend to call this iterative technique many different names. IDEO, a successful design firm uses this method, but calls it design thinking. Motorola uses it, but calls it Six Sigma. Toyota refers to it as kaizen, which is part of their continuous improvement process. David Allen uses it as the basis for his time management program “Getting Things Done”. Even fighter pilots use the scientific method, but call it an OODA loop.

I don’t believe that sticking your head in the sand and ranting about things is going to change things. We need to figure out the solutions ourselves and then show these solutions back to government/schools. We also need to involve them in this iterative approach. I am proposing using this iterative approach in a collaborative environment with government. Read more about it here http://bit.ly/cjKQu7

#8 Antradar Software on 02.27.10 at 6:09 pm

I see a lot of parallel between political systems and software architecture. Changing the constitution is like writing a different type of OS kernel. Look at the core mechanism of Windows and the Win32 API. Or look at the HTTP protocol and all the browsers and web applications built around it. Changing these would violate too many people's interest. We have made some fundamental changes in the OS landscape in the past, such as protected memory space. But the cost of a similar change without being backward-compatible would be too high. Back to politics, the government is trying to rid the huge deficit, so it needs to keep the majority of the population in check.