Broken Assumptions of Governance

Tiny section of the helpful Cognitive Bias Codex rendered by J. Manoogian III

Before we can really tackle building next generation governance, we may have to shake up some of the assumptions holding us back. After all, if we can’t build something on disproven ideals and expect it to work, no matter how comfortable they are to cling to.

My previous post got such strong response that I am writing a small series of posts to answer people’s questions, and share a possible path for how we can get to governance for a world that works.


Disclaimer: I challenge a lot of sacred cows about governance here. If you’ve been working or building something in that space, you may find this article disturbing.
Before you post an angry comment, please know that I recognize the commitments behind our assumptions as beautiful and maybe even something to strive for, but it doesn’t make them true. Also, in an effort to keep this short, a handful of sentences will not “prove” anything beyond a doubt. Just see if you can consider the possibility of flaws in some core assumptions.
I believe we need to do a reset, and stop limiting next-gen governance by the tools and assumptions of our past approaches. To meet the huge challenges confronting us, we need more than incremental digital tweaks, we need a breakthrough in large-scale collective wisdom. I hope to provide a sense of how that is possible.

Let’s Get Real

If your primary experience with governance is the morass of gridlock and corruption that passes for politics today, you’d be justified in being dismissive of ungrounded theories. However, if you are willing to consider the things I point out in this post, you might discover that it’s our CURRENT models and practices of governance that fail to be grounded in reality.

I have experienced a wide gamut of approaches and settings for governance ranging from do-acracy, adhocracy, sociocracy, corporate hierarchies of some of the largest companies, bureaucracies of the educational system, egomaniacal tyrants, churches and religious societies, agile start-ups, anarchy, Quaker communities, hippy ecovillages, political organizing and activism, Occupy Wall Street assemblies, benificent dictators, online communities, and schools run by kids.

I’m not saying I’m the expert. I’m just saying I’ve tried a lot of things, gotten my hands dirty, and experienced some stuff that works. I’ve also observed a lot of stuff that doesn’t work, or at least where the measure of working pales in comparison to the effectiveness of things that actually do.

It doesn’t matter what brilliant ancient or modern political philosopher set forth the ideals we’ve followed, if we build next-gen solutions on broken assumptions, we’ll stay stuck in patterns of dysfunction.

So, let’s shake up some of our assumptions about governance we mostly take for granted.

People Make Rational Decisions

Sorry, but we don’t.

Neurologically speaking, the ability to decide is an emotional capacity. The rational weighing of pros and cons continues ad infinitum without the emotional will to bring it to closure and act. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of this problem.

We have to oversimplify issues for people to understand them. Our reasoning is impaired by hundreds of cognitive biases. We say and do things to be accepted by our peers and groups, and let our need for acceptance or preoccupation with immediate desires overshadow our ability to perceive things rationally.

We’ve been perfecting the manipulation of people using human irrationality for many decades. Advertising firms use it to make you buy junk. Political campaigns use it to alienate you from opponents, or mobilize people with angering ballot initiatives. The Trump campaign leverages your social media activity and uses it for fine-tuned, individualized manipulation.

Governance which relies on the notion that people are inclined to make rational decisions falls victim to our own frailties. However, since we know about our limitations, we can start to incorporate them into good designs.

People Follow Procedures

Interestingly, it’s possible to create social processes which help keep our irrationality in check. For example, models like Holacracy, have you speak from a role or responsibility that you have, rather than from your personal beliefs or preferences.

Good social processes are compelling and following them can become deeply embedded into the culture of a group. However, humans aren’t robots, and the more contrived, structured, and rational you make a process, the less people tend to enjoy or adhere to it. If the conversation is limited only to rational discourse, people don’t end up feeling heard, seen, or acknowledged. Even the most rational among us need not only to speak, but to FEEL heard.

Even when people mostly follow a procedure, they won’t follow it consistently. We all agree driving on the correct side of the road is important, yet we bend that rule when we think circumstances warrant it. When people know the system is preventing them from doing what they feel is right, they find ways to get around the system, even when they agree with most of its workings.

Won’t Smart Contracts solve this? Not really. The art of next-gen governance design isn’t to automate away all choices, but provide support (via technical process, social process, or physical structures) for parts where we tend to be most irrational. Yet include ways that people can exercise choice (opt-in, opt-out, or work-around) in places where human judgment tends to be as good or better than prefab designs. Humans won’t just follow software anyway, we demand an emotional experience of choice.

Governance Should Treat Everyone Equally

We are not equal. We have differences — different interests, attention spans, beliefs, expectations, strengths, weaknesses, skills, habits, languages, etc. The real goal is to be treated equitably and fairly, not as identical interchangeable units.

In an era of massive customization — of media, products, art, and experiences — why should we be stuck with one-size-fits-all governance?

What if the goal wasn’t just “one person, one vote” which is about equalizing the power of your vote or your voice, but was instead about finding the highest wisdom or best path? To achieve that, we might have to recognize different people bring different skills, knowledge, competencies, and figure out how to optimize everyone’s unique contribution.

Your “governance feed” becomes tailored to your interests, attention span, ways you like to contribute or participate.

Some modern tools make good steps in this direction. Direct democracy, enables people to participate directly in discussion and voting on individual issues rather than isolating everyone from direct participation through representatives. Liquid democracy enables people to delegate their votes to people based on specific topics or domains.

I know this is touchy subject likely to trigger people’s fears of elitism or abuse of power, but I am convinced that it is possible to responsibly wield tools like the extreme targeting used in Trump’s campaign not to manipulate people, but to optimize participation.

Your “governance feed” becomes tailored to your interests, attention span, ways you like to contribute or participate. You could also be directly tagged by a friend or colleague to bring something to your attention that might not fit your typical interests. We might be able to keep governance fun and call out the best in people — but not if wecan’t include difference and must pretend equality.

Voting Works

Actually, voting mostly sucks.

It reduces rich, nuanced discourse to one dimensional sums of numbers. Even if you use more advanced runoff techniques or pairwise comparison algorithms, you basically reduce issues to a popularity contest.

Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes use voting, but it is important to know that popularity is not wisdom. Just because something is currently popular doesn’t make it good or wise. Knowing how popular something is can be extremely useful, especially for understanding paths to adoption, but aren’t their better ways of making good decisions?

“But you can’t have democracy without voting!” — Not true.

Speaking from my experience, every setting where voting was used to decide things was less satisfying (in terms of quality of decisions, experience of participation, and belief you could effect needed changes) than groups where the process for discourse went deep enough that alignment was clear without a need for counting votes.

That is still “rule by the people” (democracy).

We Can Have more Parties / Elect Better Representatives

Putting aside the fact that concentrating power into the hands of a small number of representatives makes it easy for the wealthy to target their influence and manipulate those “representatives.”

Representatives can’t represent us.

At least not in the general sense, that across all issues someone who doesn’t even know me could be said to represent my perspective or interest in: net neutrality, military spending, drug enforcement, funding for arts, immigration policy, etc. On a specific issue, I certainly might say: “Hey, the things that person is saying really represent what I think about that.”

So that kind of delegation of narrow representation may be feasible, like in liquid democracy. But what about this concentrating of power effect? Doesn’t it still warp outcomes? Yes it does. Realistically, the more power becomes aggregated or concentrated, a system ends up with poorer discourse and is easier to manipulate.

We Know What Decisions To Make

It might have been much easier to address sustainable energy use or C02 emissions if we designed all our technology with that in mind from the beginning. But we didn’t yet know it mattered. And now that we’re addicted to convenience and certain lifestyles, it’s much harder to change course.

The deeper problem is that decisions are discrete, but the world is wholly interconnected. When we make a decision, we cut off a scope of reality that we’re considering, and what we think could make it work better (who to date, a better job, a CO2 policy, use of resources on state lands)

When we cut out that little segment of reality, we did so using a bunch of assumptions about how things work, and beliefs about how they are separate or independent of each other. Unfortunately, this is already a faulty model. Everything is connected, but our decision making processes can’t deal with the complexity of “everything.” So we chop the world into arbitrary parts and convince ourselves our cutting, and our understanding of that segment is good enough to make useful decisions about it.

Chances are good, that we’re fooling ourselves.

Laws Should Be Carefully Deliberated and Made to Last

So we’ve taken some piece of the world that we’re going to make a decision about (funding for head start programs, health care insurance, a military action overseas), and now we’re going to be darn well sure to make a good decision about it, right?

Let me first admit, some decisions are certainly better than others, and many of the things I’ve written this post so far are about ways to maximize the chances of better decisions rather than worse ones. Yet, we significantly overestimate our ability to predict the outcomes of our decisions, while underestimating our cognitive biases and corruption by self-serving influence of special interests feeding those biases.

Many of you may be familiar with the field of genetic algorithms (GA) — basically computer programs that randomly evolve offspring which compete for better fitness for a solution to a problem. In many contexts, GAs outperform human programmers.

In my experience, agile/adaptive governance approaches outperform structures which focus heavily on the decision-making process. When we minimize the cost of trying something, learning from it, and changing it if we didn’t get it right, then we’re leveraging human intelligence in the learning, rather than in predicting an unknown future. Those organizations also tend to have more fun, and much shorter meetings! :)

Transparency (Blockchain Will Save Us)

I favor transparency, and see a commitment to it as admirable. Yet transparency often doesn’t accomplish what we hope. In some cases, people feel vulnerable to attacks or persecution from disagreeing parties. In other cases, it creates uncomfortable tension between personal inclinations and social pressures.

But the sticky point for me is that data taken out of context is not information, it is misinformation (alternative facts?)

When you have attained the level of expertise to be involved with making decisions about a complex issue, then you are using specialized language in your discourse which is inherently opaque to people outside. People outside of your context and domain of specialization can hear/see the same words, but they don’t have the same meaning.

This inaccessible jargon is an unavoidable part of “compressing” the massive complexity of a problem into sentences we can actually speak. You could listen to recordings of MetaCurrency design conversations, but almost nobody would know what we’re saying. They might think they do, because we’re using familiar words, but we’ve refined their use in our context to have meanings others don’t share.

So, as far as decision making goes, transparency doesn’t make that accessible in the ways we’d hope, and in fact can fuel massive misunderstanding or misinformation campaigns by taking things said out of context. But what about transparent record keeping on something like a blockchain?

First, as far as governance goes, blockchain doesn’t have any. They skipped the step of building social processes for decision-making for changes to the underlying technology, so even the blockchain is vulnerable to all the challenges of human irrationality as it evolves.

However, it is certainly a step in the right direction to establish open record-keeping with data integrity assured by cryptographic hashes, and data provenance verified by cryptographic signatures.

So, Is There No Hope?

If bankrupt assumptions are built into today’s governments and even most leading-edge digital governance tools, aren’t we screwed?

No. We’re in pretty good shape. The hidden benefit of the current crises happening in numerous governments is that people are loosening their irrational faith in the system, and opening to new possibilities they couldn’t have considered even just a year ago.

So, although this could all seem like discouraging news, to me it is heartening, because it means that gnawing desire we’ve had in our guts for something better, is justified. I can tell you, there are approaches to governance which are actually fun, easy, agile, and deeply satisfying. But we do have to confront the challenges of taking them to large scales.


This post has gotten too long, so I’ll have to finish by turning this into a next-gen governance series:

  1. The Future of Governance is not Governments
  2. Challenging Broken Assumptions of Governance (this post)
  3. Powerful Design Principles for Next-Gen Governance
  4. Healthy Feedback Loops: The 90% of Governance Beyond Decision Making

[View the full Cognitive Bias Codex image not just the header excerpt]