For years I’ve toyed around with the idea of a political party based on Agile principles. Here’s how I think a party like that would be:
Issue-free. I don’t care what your personal goals are. Want free healthcare? Sounds great. Want zero taxes? Sign me up. Want everybody to have an above-average income? This confuses me, but hell, might work, who knows? What we’ve learned over thousands of years of politics is that the goals we seek and the results we end up with are two different things. So let’s just decouple goals from process. Yes, tell us your goals, and we will elect you based on our agreement with them. But don’t go mucking around with how to accomplish those goals, because we already know the answer here.
This separates the “what” of government — what goals it is supposed to accomplish — from the “how”. It’s not like we have to reinvent the “how” every time somebody gets elected: that’s whacked. A dozen or so rules about the “how”, and you’re free to pursue whatever “what” you want. It’s a quantum leap forward in how government is done, and sorely needed. (I would note that this was the original intent of the U.S. Constitution, and I think the original text is amazingly prescient, it’s just time to add a bit more now after having looked at how these systems work in practice.)
Centralized decisions are almost always bad, but centralization is absolutely necessary. Centralized decisions, by definition, are broad rules enacted by people who make broad generalizations about the population and economy in order to help more people than they hurt. Even if mostly correct, these rules always harm a certain small percentage of the affected who don’t fit into the boxes set up by the planners. Over time — a very small amount of time — these “edge cases” build up, the system becomes archaic and inflexible, and it reaches the point where more and more rules are piled on top of old rules in an effort to keep things working. In technology this is called architectural cruft, but the same principle holds in government. I wouldn’t think any modern person would still have to argue this, but because of purposeful BS on the part of politicians we do: a million decentralized self-optimizing agents will always kick the ass of a centralized system. That’s not a political statement — you can pursue whatever goals you want in society, you just have to understand how things work first in order to make them happen.
That also doesn’t mean that centralized systems have no value: some things are natural singletons, like missile defense. There is a critical need for common definitions of things. How can you tell if one of a dozen broadband contracts is better than another without some kind of common rating system? Just not direct, detail-driven control. Centralized government can make the definitions, ensure the data is available to the smaller decision-making units, and keep large players from gaming the system, but they shouldn’t directly control things.
When decisions are made, say for the national budget, agreements are made on principles at a high level and the details are decided later at a low level. For example, for a national budget a good historical figure might be 15% of GDP. History shows that no matter what the tax code, we never get more than 20% of so of GDP anyway, so might as well be honest about it. How that is collected is up to each legislature, but the principle holds power first, the details later. Departments would have money allocated by percentage, not by dollar, so that the ebb and flow of tax revenues wouldn’t create huge crises. Control can be had at the high level for those singleton activities, but only on principles, not on details. People the closest to the problem have the best shot at making the correct decisions, and what works for one group may not work for another facing the same problem.
Nothing without a feedback loop. Want to give money directly to homeless people? Fine, then put it on debit cards and track and publicly and regularly report how the money is spent. Want to build a dozen new aircraft carriers? Fine, then regularly track how much those carriers help or hinder the national interest (probably through opinion surveys of foreign political leaders, but there could be other ways. The point is a regular, open feedback system with clear definitions for failure as a requirement for any money being spent or laws made.) Want to eliminate big box stores? Fine, then track the cost of products to the local consumer during the process and have before and after numbers. Compare directly to other configurations (see “No Centralized Control” above)
Everything has an expiration date. If there’s one thing the current debt crisis is teaching me, it’s that I have no obligation to debts made by my grandfather. Just like “no taxation without representation” was the rallying cry of the American Revolutionary War, I am not represented in decisions made decades ago that I have no practical way of reversing (Theoretically yes, but let’s be honest here: once these things are put in place, they never go away).
The only way around that is to limit the duration that changes last. Constitutional amendments? Say a generation or two. Creation of agencies? No more than 30 years. Class 1 felonies? Perhaps 20 years. Tax code? No more than 10 years. Congressmen? 12 years. And so forth.
This forces three things: first, it makes us examine whether things still make sense after a predetermined period of time. Second, it forces the system to “lean up” to the point where a lot more legislation can get done in a smaller amount of time. Third, it applies gentle pressure for the system to keep simplifying itself.
I could go on, in enough detail probably for a book, but you get the idea: it’s not like those principles that help in technology development are limited to just technology development. Yes, authors make analogies all the time and carry them too far, but the principles of technology development — being given resources and finite time to carry out some change in a system — is not solely limited to tech. We had to invent these things because tech is always reinventing reality from scratch. In a lot of ways, having so many technology development efforts fail and succeed over the years has given us thousands of examples of what works and what doesn’t. We should learn from this.
The interesting thing to ask here is “Why aren’t we already doing this?” It’s not like any of this is new. It’s not even related to what you want from government’ as I said before, you can demand anything you want from government and this structure will get it for you (or try). I think the answer is very simple: if we stuck to these ideas, politicians and political parties would have to be a lot more honest about why they do things. The real reason the tax code is so complex nobody understands it isn’t random chance; it’s because politicians purposely put all sorts of little details in there to reward people who give them votes and money. Perhaps we could start voting on people who were truly different from each other and had vastly different ways of looking at things and solving problems, instead of folks who all root for their team. This would also eliminate 95% of political arguments and fighting between parties, something no political party wants to do (fighting and angry people get them votes). Giving up that kind of control is a pipe dream — it isn’t very likely that is is going to happen.
But it could.If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.