Why Tech has failed Politics

About 7 months ago, Ben Rattray, a founder of Change.org, wrote an article about some ideas for how tech could help politics. Unfortunately, they weren’t well developed. They were not solutions.

How Tech Fixed Search

Imagine it was 1990 and there were no good search engines yet. People spout ideas like, “We need more people searching,” “We need better communication,” “We need trustworthy information.” Those thoughts did not create a search engine.

Then someone says, “What if we made information easy to submit and readily available, so people can type in a phrase and get good information back quickly.”

This specifies what people do. People with information post it to the web. Users type. And the system returns good information quickly.

The analysis of what that makes possible is lengthy. But the description is short. And the messages are succinct. To searchers, “Quickly find what you’re looking for.” To people who want to be found, “We’ll find you.”

After this, search engine teams could focus on doing a good job building it.

How tech has failed politics

Politics is a much more involved thing. It’s purpose isn’t to give trusted information or to elect good people or to enable people to compete for office or for parties to compete for power. The purpose of politics isn’t to get more people to vote or be involved. But these are what systems (companies and consultants and web sites and organizations) offer. So these efforts don’t make much of a difference in politics.

Besides working on the wrong things, tech didn’t do what many in tech are good at- identifying and solving problems. Instead, founders like Ben assumed their understanding of politics was sufficient, even though they didn’t have a solution. It’s not Ben’s fault- he’s been like everyone else, doing the best he can. But more is needed.

With the exception of PeopleCount, no one has proposed a viable system. Change.org offers petitions, but they mostly seem to do nothing. “Make your voice heard” isn’t a solution. There are others that have tried, AmericansElect, Brigade, Simpolfy and Countable. But none have thought through to a whole solution.

What’s the purpose of politics?

The purpose of politics is to “enable the members of a society to collectively achieve important human goals they cannot otherwise achieve individually. … politics procures safety, order and general welfare within the state.”

There are all sorts of ways of doing this, but America want one that’s democratic within the bounds allowed by our Constitution, guaranteeing certain rights and liberties.

One solution

One solution, the one proposed by PeopleCount, is a system whereby politicians are accountable to citizens. I’ve written a lot about accountability. And I’ve created a succinct description of what a solution looks like:

Citizens vote on issues to express themselves and be counted. They see the results so they can form expectations of what they want and what’s possible. They request accountability on the issues important to them. Politicians regularly report to them. Citizens grade them and share the grades.

There’s much more to the details, included trusted information and deliberative democracy and crowdsourcing topics, issues, and questions. But this is a robust beginning. Working on this will allow tech to fix politics.

PeopleCount is leading the effort with an entire design of an MVP complete with a growth plan, marketing partners and sustainable financing. But we’re currently 1 guy with a full-time job, so it’s going slowly.

What’s needed is to invest in this area.

If People don’t Research, can PeopleCount work?

What if people don’t research? Someone on Facebook said PeopleCount is interesting, but it won’t work because of “assumption that people are rational and will take the time to research candidates.” We do not assume these.

I hate to research, but I’ll vote if it makes a difference

I’m a nerd, and even I hate researching candidates. Every so often I hear something negative about one of my incumbents. But elections are so expensive, there’s never a choice. And even if there is a bit, It’s too hard to research. Media has bias and rarely reports about the candidates on the issues I’m concerned about. Most of the important ones are never even covered by the media.

I don’t want to research. But I WILL read a short report on an issue I’m concerned. If I get to grade it, I’ll even pay attention! But only if the grade is counted and the tally is public. I don’t want to judge representatives relative to each other. But I’ll judge both on a single issue. IF they’ll account to me about it.

Millions of people sign Change.org petitions. Why? Partly just do SOMEthing. The feedback on them is almost nil. I want the feedback. I want to see that it’s making a difference.

PeopleCount gives you a reason

Today, not only do people not research candidates, but most don’t even research issues. And they care about issues. What’s the point? The more you know, the more frustrated you are. Without the insane-curiosity bug (that the “elite” have), there’s really no reason. So most people don’t. If we get to vote on decent issues on PeopleCount, there’s suddenly a reason.

Let’s say I see a post on Facebook about how I can now vote on an issue I care about.

I go there, and there are some good solutions. “Oh, THAT’s a possibility? I think I like that.” And then I see another interesting one. Do I want one, the other, or both? So I make a choice.

Next time I hear something about it, having voted, I’ll listen more. I might even ask a knowledgable friend about it. A week later I get a notice that the voting has gone from a hundred to a thousand people on one issue. “Can this really happen?” When I hear occasional news about it, I listen even more carefully.

Add reports

Then come’s a report from a challenger. She says the issue has been known to be popular for a decade, but my incumbent has done nothing about it. “That’s just wrong,” I think to myself. I give the challenger and A and the incumbent, who hasn’t yet filed a report, an E.

The media picks up on it and suddenly there’s local news about how bad the incumbent is on this very popular issue. It’s almost two years before the next election and the challenger is getting free news!

Then the incumbent reports and gives some excuses. “Fair enough,” I think. I give him a C. The challenger then reports and tells me some of the incumbent’s conflicts of interests on this issue. There are even two links to sources. I click on one- it seems real. I change that last grade to a D…

Making a difference

I’ll bet BEFORE the election comes, Congress actually passes the legislation.

I’ll bet that WHEN the election comes, people vote him out anyway.

And then the count, in my district, hits 100,000.

There’ve been voting sites before. They failed, for a variety of reasons. Mainly, they failed because they couldn’t make a difference. PeopleCount will not make those mistakes. We’ll make a difference.

Please add your email address to our announcement list.

Please take PeopleCount Seriously

Someone who’s into political transformation linked to me on LinkedIn. I called him, hoping. He was just linking to interesting names he had collected… If you’re like him, here’s my message to you:

PeopleCount is different

There have been a lot of projects to change politics. As far as I’ve seen, PeopleCount is different- designed to have a large, immediate impact. Others intended to, but were never designed to.

Many efforts started small and tried to prove themselves. They haven’t thought out their marketing, their value to people, the desirability of their offering, or their distribution and growth plans. When they couldn’t must a real solution, they followed the “best practice” of winging it and hoping that copying others’ best practices would suffice.

I apologize for my apparent arrogance. I’ve heard very few solid criticisms of PeopleCount. But I did hear them, and then I addressed them.

Would you know a solution if it slapped you in the face? No.

If you saw a project that could REALLY transform politics in wonderful ways, would you drop everything and join it? Or at least take initiative and support it energetically? If not, never mind. Just tell me and we can disconnect on LinkedIn.

If you saw a project that could REALLY transform politics, would you recognize it? Of course not, at least at first. If it was that obvious, it would have been thought of and built years ago.

If there was a project that could REALLY transform politics, what kind of effort would you put into recognizing it? Most people give it 2-3 minutes. If it doesn’t get through their thick skull and the even thicker mists of cultural myths in 2-3 minutes, they figure it’ll never work.

PeopleCount is what you don’t even know how to listen for.

This is that project. I try to simplify it, because no one wants to read the details. I try to simplify it, because people don’t get the gist of it, due to cynicism, cultural myths, lack of imagination and lack of thinking skills.

A few people finally get the simple gist of it, and are interested. And then they dismiss it for being too simple. When they start thinking about complexities, it seems too daunting, so they go back to thinking it can’t work.

I’m pretty brilliant. In my free time, I often do math and logic puzzles. Those are exercises in seeing what’s really going on. Only a tiny fraction of the population can solve them. I can spend a full day or two with a difficult one- much more thinking than most people put into anything. It’s very disappointing, but not too surprising, that people can’t understand PeopleCount.

The good news is that users won’t have to. They’ll appreciate it naturally by using it.

I need help

The bad news is that people who can fund it need to understand it first. And that takes the kind of thinking that few people are able to do, and few of them employ often.

I need some help to finish building it. Sure, I’m bright. But not bright enough to launch a startup alone- that’s very, very rare and takes more than brains. It takes a lot of work and teamwork. I need funding to work on it myself full time. I need a team, just like every other decent project. I need money for a few months for a small team to finish building it and launch it. I’ll need a bigger team to grow it the first year till we reach sustainability.

Please keep reading, the conclusion is in the next post.

America was Never Designed to Deliver Accountable Politics

We think America’s political system is broken in every way possible. It’s not- it’s working perfectly! It’s perfectly producing the terrible results we have. It was never designed to produce anything else.

The Founders were amateurs

We have a political system that was built by people with no experience forming a democracy. They never designed it to produce good results. They tried. And they did a good job for their time. But they knew nothing about design, sociology, or even communication compared to today’s experts.

After they designed it, they did no testing. After they launched, they identified no measures of success and measured nothing. Of course it doesn’t work very well. But in the beginning, it didn’t have to- it just had to create an appearance of national independence over largely independent states containing largely independent communities.

Idolizing their work keeps it lousy

The founders had great PR over the centuries. Americans are taught to be proud of our founders and their accomplishment. We could tell our children:  “The good ideas of our founders served America pretty well for about 75 years, till the civil war. Since then, it has only worked well when we were lucky. And boy, were we unlucky at times.”  But no. We teach them that America still has the best political system in the world. That’s the perfect thing to teach to ensure our lousy system isn’t fixed.

What’s needed? Accountability

If we started to design a political system, we wouldn’t even know the purpose of the design.  I looked into this a few years ago. Most people didn’t even know where to start. Or they picked unworkable ideas, like, “they’d do what the citizens wanted.”  I did some research. I talked to lots of people for a good two months.

What I found was this: We need it designed to deliver accountability to voters. That includes not being accountable to wealthy donors and special interests. But it’s not just “making Congress accountable in elections.” It turns out that’s almost no accountability at all. If Congress were truly accountable to voters, everything would change.

What’s accountability, and how can a system deliver it?

What IS accountability? That’s a great place to start- realizing our cultural notions about it are poorly defined.

How can a system deliver accountability? That’s another excellent question. Think about how long you’ve had complaints about US politics. Yet this is probably the first time you’ve considered this question.

These are new thoughts for most people. And few people understand new thoughts from reading. You have to read it slowly, absorb it and ask questions. Even better is, when you hear your mind arguing against it, realize your mind is thinking with ideas that keep the status quo in place.

Americans have been dissatisfied with government for many, many decades. “Throw the bums out” is not a new expression. All your current thoughts, even the ones that rebel against the status quo, are already part of the status quo. They’re part of the forces that keep the existing system in place.

Keep all this in mind as you find out about accountability.

Think Different and Fixing Politics is Possible

Consider how wrong we’ve been. A complete lunatic is president. He’s doing blatantly unconstitutional things, irresponsible things, immoral things, dangerous things. And we:

  • Didn’t see it coming
  • Let it happen by not being able to rally behind a less-hated candidate
  • Let it happen by not being able to give third parties a chance
  • Couldn’t even get senators to question the electoral college vote
  • Have no way of acting together to stop him

And yet, people are trying the same things. Raise money, sue, protest, march, complain.

We do what we know to do, not what works

Those are all the things we know to do. They’re standard political things. They are completely inside-the-box of our current political system, the system that’s failing us.

Think! Is there a doable, quick way of fixing American politics? Think of the solutions you know- each one takes at least one political fight and at least one change in the law. Those are NOT going to succeed.

It’s time to try something new. Very, very few of you seem to be able to think differently. And when you try, you expect to see something new quickly or you think it won’t work.

If you read my blog, you know I’m very bright and it took me months to find a real solution. It’s pretty simple, but it goes against our usual thinking. The solution is simple, but thinking about it is difficult.

Remember when flying was impossible

Think back to when no one could fly. What took being able to fly was a small team trying over and over and over again. They started with not just a belief that it was possible, but an understanding of the fundamental problem that was preventing a solution. They solved that and flying became a possibility.
The well-funded team believed in more powerful engines. They had lots of backing and resources and they never flew. Why did they think they needed a more powerful engine? Because it was easy to think that. They knew how to think that so they pursued it.

Wilbur and Orville thought they needed better control and a light plane. They worked to be successful with what they had. And they carefully calculated what they needed, performed experiments and measured. It took them about 7 years.

Let’s do this with politics- think different

PeopleCount has a brand-new political theory, created after months of a new analysis. Unlike other theories, it predicts the current dysfunction. This new analysis suggested a solution and that has now been worked on for years, with a lot more analysis. Every single part has been analyzed and planned for. In many hundreds of conversations, no insurmountable problem has been identified.

It’s now time to put a team together, complete the first version and start testing. Please, do your part. Add your email address to our announcement list and make a small donation.
Yes, we need people. But no, making a new party or supporting an old party or a new special interest group to attack one little piece of the problem isn’t going to help. There’s no science behind that. In fact, it’s exactly our dedication to those strategies that has gotten us into this mess.

Please, think different. Support PeopleCount today. Look around. We can’t afford to delay.

The Solution to US Political Problems is Outside the Box

There is a solution to America’s political problems. It’s well thought-out, well-planned and requires about two more months of work to launch. Two great things about it is that it can succeed without a political battle and without using our dysfunctional political system. But I can’t finish it alone, nor launch it alone. I need a team and funding.

I’m sorry that it sounds so far-fetched. I’ve written extensively about it, but few people can hear it from reading. Consider this possibility: Our common truths about politics are not completely true, they’re cultural myths. And they prevent us from understanding an outside-the-box solution.

Unsolvable: Money in Politics

Money is a big problem in politics, but campaign financing laws are a lousy solution. They require that our broken political system fix itself. Plus they’re like the drug war- trying to reduce the supply instead of reducing the need.

Recall that this has been a known problem for decades. We even had campaign financing laws for years. Yet the problem kept getting worse.

Unsolvable: Corruption

Corruption is a huge problem in Washington DC. Half of US members of Congress and their senior staffs go on to work for the industries that contributed to their campaigns, as John Boehner did recently.

This problem is solvable. The American Anti-Corruption Act was proposed in 2009, but Congress has always been too corrupt to pass it. What do Americans want? A survey found 97% of Americans favor such legislation. But a solution that requires Congressional action simply won’t happen.

The real problem isn’t corruption. The real problem is a combination of members of Congress’ need for campaign funds and lack of accountability to voters. Since they’re not accountable to voters, they’re easily accountable to donors and the parties. Again, we’ve had these problems for many, many years and they keep getting worse.

Unsolvable: Apathy and Ignorance

American citizens are famous worldwide for our low voter rates and our ignorance about political issues. Many startups and non-profit organizations have tackled this problem with all sorts of better voter information. Nothing has worked. Voter ignorance in this last election highlights the issue.

In conversations with over 500 voters, I learned the two reasons for apathy and ignorance. First, what voters know on issues matters very little to most of them. Voters vote for people, not for issues. Almost no voters side with their party on all issues. Over time, elections have become a popularity contest, rather than about issues. Second, most voters find that the more they know, the more frustrated they are. The easiest ways to lessen the emotional pain about issues are to stop caring and to learn less about them.

Unsolvable: Parties

The two major parties have a lock on power, and they’re not giving it up. This is true even though 45% of voters register unaffiliated (independent), and 60% of voters think we need a third party. Again, while Congress is run by the two major parties and members are not accountable to people, this won’t change. In particular, Congress is very unlikely to adopt a voting system like Instant Runoff voting or Approval voting which can give third-parties a chance.

The Solution: Outside-the-box

These problems are all inside the box of politics. Everyone blames others. Inside-the-box is the standard political answer- we need a movement. But it hasn’t worked.

The solution is outside- create something entirely new which requires no changes in law. Give politicians ways to be accountable to citizens, and gives citizens ways to hold them accountable. This gets at the root problem which underlies the above problems. It also vastly lowers the amount of money a politician needs to stay in office. Politicians will be freed from being accountable to donors and parties.

For more information, see our article on accountability, and our How it Works page.

To make a difference, add your email address to our list and make a donation. And spread the word. Especially, connect us with people who want a real change in politics and can help fund our efforts so we can launch.

Real Democracy is Possible for the Future

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Letter to the President

In this last section, I paint a picture of what’s possible for the future, and make an invitation. This is the fourth and final part, after 1- outlining the problem , 2-stating the cause of the problem, and 3- what happened last year.

The President regrets

President Obama, about a year ago, said he deeply regretted not healing, nor even lessening, the partisan divide. It’s too bad he wallowed in regret instead of convening a presidential commission on it. It’s too bad he didn’t make “improving politics” or “political reform” one of the subjects on the whitehouse.gov contact page. It was too bad that he didn’t respond to any of my letters.

The difference in the last election

With this system, a moderate and reasonable Republican could have won. And Bernie would have probably beaten Hillary. And Hillary would have certainly beaten Trump (none of them answered my letters.)  With this system in place, I believe centrist and moderate candidates would have won many more seats. And many more people would have voted.

What’s possible for the future?

With this system, we can make Congress function well. Pragmatic, problem-solving politicians can win many more seats in the next election. If we work quickly, w\e can even go far in holding Trump accountable (assuming he succeeds in gaining office.)

Once we have this system, what would we change? I predict the first things would be to enact all the fixes we’ve been wanting, to elections, to campaign financing, to conflicts of interest, to gerrymandering, and more. We can restore honesty and integrity to American politics and government.

What’s needed: A team

But I can’t do it alone. Can you help? Do you think President Obama would like his legacy to be transforming America into a functioning Democracy? Might he have some time soon to help me gather a team and some funding? Would you help?

I could write down all the details, but this letter is already too long. And the myths about why-politics-are-this-way are very compelling. I’m hoping this essay will open the possibility of a real solution. We’ll need to talk about the details.

Please, give me a call. Let’s talk. And please share with the president what’s possible for the future. Perhaps, coming from you, he’ll listen.

And then I sent it into the ether. Feedback? And please remember to join our announcement list.

I Failed to Launch the Solution to our Political Problems

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Letter to the President

I designed the solution, but I failed to launch it. After outlining the problem and then stating the cause of the problem, this 3rd part tells why I failed.

Designing a solution wasn’t too hard once I identified what accountability was. I made a rigorous definition of it and applied it to politics. It’s a bit more difficult in politics because “the boss” is made up of millions of voters, so we all need to be able to work together. But it turns out that’s not too difficult.

It seems difficult because we seem divided. But I don’t mean “work together” to solve our problems. We just need to work together to hold politicians accountable. That doesn’t require discussions or even conversations, though it does require robust communication. (This is another misunderstanding most people have, that “communication” means having a conversation. That’s just one kind of communication.)

An accountability system

I designed an accountability system- a way for politicians to be accountable and citizens to hold them accountable. And it turned out to be very attractive to politicians. In fact, the six I managed to reach were even willing to be paying customers! Well, once I had a product.

And I talked with hundreds of citizens. About 80% were willing to try it. And there were millions of people in groups who would be the perfect first users. Growth looked quite doable. It would require a competent team, but the design is technically doable. So I looked to build a team.

I failed. I’m not well connected

I failed. I’m not well networked. I don’t know entrepreneurs or philanthropists with the resources or vision to make this kind of a difference. 

People listen to the president for direction and inspiration. They don’t listen like that to me. Most people are afraid of politics and sink back into the myths they know, like “you can’t change human nature” and “politicians are corrupt” and “it’ll never work”. Most people bring cynicism to both politics and new ventures. I almost put together a team twice. With funding, about $2 million, it’d be easy. But without funding, most people couldn’t consider it. I failed.

In the next part, I wrapped it up and made my pitch.

The Real Cause of America’s Political Problems

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Letter to the President

In this part of the letter, I identify the real cause of our political problems, and point to the solution- the piece that’s missing.

The cause: Lack of design.

Our political system simply wasn’t designed to produce the results we want. That’s the fundamental cause of our problems. It wasn’t designed to engage or empower voters. It wasn’t designed for transparency. It wasn’t designed for accountability.

That’s the short-version of the reason we have all these political problems. There was intention and hope. And 240 years ago it was a good design. It produced a lot of the results they wanted. But even back then, the design didn’t take into account political parties. That wasn’t too bad because political parties weren’t well established. And communication was so poor that a country “of the people” mainly meant it meddled very little in people’s lives.

America has changed

In the last 60 years, the world has changed so much that the founder’s original designs are even less effective. There were huge differences when America was founded. Todays corporations were illegal in America. Lobbying was taboo. There was no “big media” much less an internet, radio or TV. There wasn’t even reliable mail service! And political parties were in their infancy. And of course, government was much, much smaller.

No one is to blame

In almost any system, people do what they see is appropriate. In America, citizens have the ultimate power. But we can’t wield it. It’s only natural that others try. The myriad special interests fight over our power. Special interests, including the media, manipulate the people as best they can to win elections. And in the process, politicians are often corrupted.

Changing campaign finance laws might weaken them a bit, but not much. None of the proposed improvements will change this.

What’s missing: accountability.

I’ve talked with many hundreds of Americans. None had a robust definition of “accountability.”

Instead, we believe a myth that accountability happens in elections. But it doesn’t, except maybe a tiny, tiny bit. Especially in today’s elections where incumbents and money have tremendous advantage. Very little accountability is delivered in elections.

Accountability exists in a boss-employee relationship and in a teacher-student relationship. These work pretty well. In these systems there are structures in place that enable the employee or student to be accountable and the boss or teacher to hold them accountable. And it happens day to day, weekly, and month by month, not just once ever two to six years.

This is what’s missing from our system: Practical ways to deliver both sides of accountability.

I hope that hooked them. The next part will be about what happened.