Chairman Ed

Connecting people, ideas and processes

Category Archives: Political Implications

Evolution of US Democracy

Are we stuck? Structurally stuck? Sometimes I feel that we are. Our democratic processes feel like they are stuck and not evolving.

We have evolved in the past. We changed the way senators were chosen. We removed structural barriers to voting based on gender, race and age. Now I wonder how we evolve in an age when information and communication tools potentially provide new options.

I wonder about senators. Does a compromise that was made several hundred years ago fit the reality of today’s world? How do we justify two senators in states like Rhode Island, Delaware and Wyoming, or others with smaller populations, when a large state like California also only has two senators? For that matter, do state boundaries themselves reflect the realities of how people live and work today?

I have a very difficult time imagining the process that would change either of those two conditions. It is hard to imagine the amount of sustained energy, perseverance and determination, let alone what interests could be brought together to cause it to happen, that could facilitate such change.

We want government to be stable and predictable. An unstable government is not a pretty thing, as we can see from headlines around the world. We created bureaucracy because it helps create stability and continuity across elections. Yet, when does that stability become hardening of the arteries?

Perhaps the more important question is how do we make sure our democracy keeps evolving so that we can avoid the violent transitions when governments cling to the past and do not evolve?

Two words that float in a growing word cloud of change vocabulary might give some hints about seeds of evolution – “engagement” and “collaboration”. The Internet has allowed us to move from silent consumers of information to engaged contributors. I do not believe it has done as well in giving us tools for collaboration, or, at least, they are not used as broadly as they might be.

I am more familiar with local government because I spent several years as chief administrative officer of a city, so let me suggest a local scenario that might nurture those two seeds.

A prominent, and well tested, model for orchestrating change at the local level is the blue ribbon panel. This is a group of local citizens who are willing and interested in helping their community and represent different constituencies in the area. Typically these groups are limited in size to the number of people a large conference room can accommodate. I participated in many of these groups.

I began to make several observations about the limits of this method. First, it does not fit the growing engagement model because a relatively small group of people make the decisions and then look to get “buy-in” from the rest of the community. Buy-in is a selling process not an engagement one. Also, as the problems got more complex the blue ribbon panel lacked the depth and breath to address the issues. And, often the members of the multiple panels that existed at any one time, addressing different community issues, overlapped because their jobs allow them the flexibility to participate in meetings during the normal business day.

Today’s online tools provide the possibility of greatly expanding the number of people who can be involved, and have engagement in the process, while still maintaining a sense of order. Let me briefly suggest a scenario just to illustrate how such a process might work.

The area where I live, like many areas in the country, is de-industrializing its river. The river connects three small cities in the region and also flows through some suburban municipalities. The question of how to plan for development of the river in the future is one that crosses many municipal boundaries, and reasonably should have coordination among these different governmental units.

Suppose instead of a blue ribbon panel we had a much larger group of interested and knowledgeable community members each of whom could make a small contribution of their time and knowledge. We might have people from universities who have charted the river or who do survey research. We could have different interests from each municipality represented. We could have engineers and hydrologists. Suppose instead of 30 or 40 people, we had 500 or 600 people involved and engaged.

We could potentially create the plan for future use of the river in greater detail by tapping the expertise within this broad group. We might use a tool like a wiki as a place for collaborative writing of the group’s report. At the end, we would also have a large group of people who have invested their time and energy in the project and who can collaborate to help move the recommendations through the political process.

Could such an approach work in your community? Could you personally be more involved in such a process if it provided the flexibility of online involvement and contribution?


Depressed Robots and Workers?

At a Ben Franklin Technology Partners events last year I heard futurist Jack Uldrich explain how the field of robotics will grow 1000-fold in the coming decade. Hearing this presentation made me start to ponder the implications of this type of change and pay more attention to articles that related to the growth of robotics.

Several months later a flurry of news articles occurred when Foxconn, the company that does the actual manufacturing for companies like Apple Computer and produces its iPhone and iPad products, announced that it would be deploying 1 million robots by 2013. This article gave some reality to Uldrich’s prediction.

As I recall Uldrich did not offer any particular definition of a robot. My own imagination tends to think of a robot as something that has physical form and mechanical motion involved. I began to stretch the definition when the IBM Watson computer competed on the Jeopardy television program and successfully outperformed the two previous most successful contestants on that show. As I might imagine a mechanical robot having implications on the manufacturing floor, I began to imagine Watson’s successors having potential impact in the office.

Watson’s success helped it (and IBM) get a new job in the healthcare field. It is now in training to become a very powerful assistant to oncology doctors at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. A health insurance company, WellPoint, is the client for the project.

Although Watson sounds like a person, it does not have a physical and mechanical form like a robot. It is simply a voice that we hear from an invisible and distant computer system. It is generally placed in the category of artificial intelligence or AI.

In that same category Apple introduced for its newest iPhone the AI assistant Siri. While Siri is not in the same league as Watson in terms of the questions that it can answer, I find it interesting because it introduces this type of tool to a broad consumer audience and stirs the competitive pot for other major companies like Google and Microsoft.

In a previous post I mentioned the Stanford University AI course that was offered for free and that attracted something like 160,000 online students. This certainly shows the level of interest in AI and now there are a substantial number of people who know more about it from two of the top people in the field.

Related to that course two business entities, Udacity and Coursera, have been formed, and Cousera has received $16 million in venture funding. In addition, MIT and Harvard have formed an entity, perhaps in response, to similarly offer online courses. All of this means there is a lot more learning possible on a global basis.

“Everything will be automated, and all we will have to do is learn and learn how to take care of each other.” My one friend says this to me frequently. Although we are a long way from that, the blips on the radar screen that I mentioned above all seem to point in that direction.

But how will we handle all of this as individuals, and as a society. One of my clients in its manufacturing facility has three or four robots and several hundred employees. What will that facility look like in 10 years if the number of robots increases by a factor of 1000? This is a company that values its employees highly and did not have any layoffs during the recent great recession. How will it accommodate competitive pressures if others in its industry, without the same value system, use robots extensively to their advantage?

If we are all going to have to learn – new skills – new opportunities for learning certainly are emerging rapidly with a very different cost structure, but still the requirement of a lot of effort on the learner’s part. Will we be able to provide the government, business and social support necessary for people to move through these transitions and feel optimistic about their lives and the future? Or, will we, as the workers, feel as bad as Marvin the robots does in the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” movie?

Bursting the Beltway Bubble

My friend Harry Stevens, cited in a previous item, shared an idea that might be worth further discussion in this era of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement. I assume this is an original idea with Harry, but I am not sure about that. I gladly give him credit, because he often had ideas that blossomed many years after he planted the seed.

The level of “legalized corruption” in our national electoral politics is becoming more and more evident, as are the distortions it causes. Jack Abramoff, the corrupt, and corrupting, lobbyist, who is promoting his new book after getting out of prison, makes crystal clear the depth and level of corruption in Congress.

What Harry proposed might just make it a little more difficult for lobbyist to lobby by removing the “lobby”. He proposed that in this day of electronic communications there is no longer a need for all of our congressmen and senators to gather in Washington DC. The Pentagon has the capability for all types of secure communications and this may be the time to put them into use so that our elected officials can stay home in their district or state. If our 435 congressional representatives and 100 senators  are at home in their districts, they are not as easy to corral in a “lobby” in Washington DC by the K Street influence peddlers.

Let me list some of the differences, both positive and negative, that this change in congressional operations might cause:

– The federal government could free up a lot of office space in Washington DC.
– Our elected officials would save money by not having to have two places of residence, one in DC and one in their district.
– They would stay closer to their constituents and have more daily contact with the concerns of the people they represent.
– If they were to be entertained by a lobbyist in their district, there would be a higher probability of their constituents being aware of this activity.
– We would not have the risk of a deliberate, or accidental, catastrophe disabling our government because all of our officials are gathered in one place .
– Congressional and Senate hearings could be spread around the country giving elected officials opportunities to see more of the whole country that their decisions impact.
– Extra efforts would have to be made for face-to-face contact in order to build the levels of communications and trust that are necessary for political bargaining.
– There would be new challenges for the media and the Washington “Bureau” of many media organizations might have fewer staff members.

So, could we burst the Beltway bubble, that isolation and sense of self-importance that can infect our leaders when they are inside the Washington Beltway? What do you think the impacts of such a change would be? Is this a way to decentralize an excess concentration of power and spread it more evenly across the country? Could we all have more access to our elected officials if they spent more time back home?

What do you think?