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Useless or Faceless?

August 3, 2011

John Quincy Adams is often quoted as having said, “One useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a Congress.” Another unnamed sage quipped, “Congress is continually appointing fact-finding committees, when what we really need are some fact-facing committees.” This past month’s acrimonious debt debates have done nothing to disprove either theorem despite their success in passing legislation to avert the nation’s first-ever default on its public debt.

It’s easy to see the tortured process of the past month and the polarized politics propelling the participants as a product of a deeply ambivalent body politic. But that would be too convenient and untrue to boot.

As Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation explained in a recent article, surveys indicate that the public at-large is much more reasonable and responsible than its representatives in Congress. Clear majorities of self-identified Republicans supported higher taxes and fewer spending cuts than those adopted yesterday. Likewise, a substantial proportion of self-identified Democrats were more than willing to amend entitlement eligibility criteria and make broader and deeper cuts to prevent default.

Politicians that pay too much attention to the polls are often derided by their rivals, who like to allege that this tendency suggests a lack of leadership ability closely akin to a moral failing. Direct democracy has its proponents, but few of even the most ardent advocates of participatory democracy would argue that it serves as either an efficient or effective way of making complex and critical decisions like those surrounding the federal budget and deficits. But how much messier would it really be than what we have all just witnessed?

The dynamics of group decision-making intrigue me. In his 2005 bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki, addressed the strengths and weaknesses of group decision-making to three particular kinds of problems:

  • Cognition problems, which require decision makers to infer unknowns from known conditions;
  • Coordination problems, which require decision-makers to achieve efficient outcomes under uncertain, competitive conditions; and
  • Cooperation problems, which involve getting “self-interested, distrustful people to work together, even when narrow self-interest would seem to dictate that no individual should take part.”

I think it’s self-explanatory which type of problem deficit-cutting most closely resembles. Surowiecki argued that effective group decision-making in all of these situations depends on three conditions: 1) diversity, 2) independence, and 3) (a particular kind of) decentralization. Congress fails on all three counts, and the process proposed in the legislation for goading our representatives into action does little if anything to improve this sorry situation.

Surowiecki notes that diversity and independence matter — particularly when solving cognition problems — “because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” Decentralization on the other hand mediates the influence of disagreement and conflict because “Groups benefit from members talking to and learning from each other, but too much communication, paradoxically, can actually make the group as a whole less intelligent.”

Balancing the three decision-making prerequisites is clearly a challenging endeavor, and sometimes more difficult than the problem itself. As a result, some of the best decision-making methods use mechanisms like market-pricing and intelligent voting systems to aggregate individual judgments to produce more accurate representations of the collective mind than would otherwise emerge from direct communication among participants.

These observations may or may not suggest the need for Constitutional or procedural reforms to make Congress function more efficiently and effectively when dealing with such contentious issues. But they should inform our assessment of what it takes to improve the performance of programs and activities affected by the looming budget cuts resulting from yesterday’s Grand and Smelly Compromise.

How might we engage the wisdom of crowds to improve the performance of homeland security and domestic intelligence operations? What applications of these or related concepts are already bearing fruit?

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