Gongol.com Archives: April 2021

Brian Gongol

April 4, 2021

Computers and the Internet Why is policy and political reform so slow?

With all kinds of innovation taking place in the digital environment, we shouldn't neglect the ways in which our physical, real-world interactions ought to be improved, too. That very much ought to include our political systems. ■ If you find that kind of innovation lacking, you're not the only one. Notably, as the rest of our lives become more information-dense (thanks to that digital innovation), it's extremely rare to find any forms of public meetings, hearings, or other engagement that have increased any of their information density since the Cold War. Sure, we can watch Congressional hearings on C-SPAN and watch committee meetings on-demand, and that's great. Sometimes state legislatures and city councils stream their meetings, too. That's good for transparency, at least. ■ But thanks to bad PowerPoint habits and the ability to electronically dump 50- and 100-page PDFs on council and board members, we may actually have less information density in our public decision-making than in the past. A solid one-page narrative report is hard. A bad PowerPoint deck is easy. ■ Information density is under-appreciated. Anyone who really wants to increase the information-to-ink ratio in their reports ought to study "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information" by the fascinating Yale emeritus professor Edward Tufte. Tufte's deconstructions of how NASA missed the bright-red warning signs that should have prevented the disastrous Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Columbia missions are vastly important. What matters is not just how much data can be documented, but how well it is reported. ■ This is no small matter. Board and council members are exhausted by bad communication from the people who work to deliver government services. Reform can't really happen if everyone is too exhausted by the status quo. And it won't happen, either, if expert staff members aren't available to help decision-makers understand what's important and what's not. ■ Lots of people seem to pin their hopes on radical changes in politics and government. Often, much too radical. Where we really should put our attention, instead, is in going beyond the livestream and finding ways to increase the density of valuable information provided to the public and public representatives alike. Only then will we really have a framework that matches our experiences in the rest of life. It's as though we've unwittingly accepted Baumol's cost disease, but for decision-maker data. We shouldn't settle for that -- innovation shouldn't be exclusive to the digital world when there's so much real life yet to improve.

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