Tag Archives: Governance

Explainable Governance

My once bumper sticker: “Question Authority, But Raise Your Hand First”.

In families and small groups, we can usually challenge and question our leaders. When they declare an official policy, we can often ask “why?”, and get a moderately coherent response. If we notice inconsistencies between explanations for related policies, we can point them out, and pressure leaders to reduce them. And to a limited extent, we can challenge such explanations, giving counter arguments to official reasons, and offering reasons for alternate policies.

Of course sometimes busy or exasperated parents, and other authorities, retreat to “because I said so”. But if they go there too often or quickly, we think less of them, share that opinion via gossip, and undermine their authority and tenure.

However, as our social systems get larger, we tend to lose this crucial human option, to see and challenge justifications for the policies we live under. Oh sure, some justifications are offered, but such things tend to be more rare, shallow, inconsistent, and unresponsive to criticism.

Today when someone tells you can’t do that, there’s a rule, and you ask why, you mostly get shoulder shugs or vague platitudes. When you hear reasons, there usually seems little point in pointing out contradictions. As a result, you feel disrespected, and these rules feel less legitimate. All of which probably contributes to our living under a less justified and coherent total set of policies.

Can we do better? I can imagine a legal requirement that all laws and agency rules have an explicit justification text, but I doubt that would create substantially better justifications than we see now.

I’ve recently tried to think about how to make our systems of governance better at offering persuasive justifications. To explain my ideas, I will make some simplifying assumptions. Not because I’m sure I need them, but because they seem to make this initial concept exploration easier.

First, let us assume that each policy has a text description, and applies to a subset of the space of policy applications. Each policy also has a text justification, and an author. Assume none of these subsets overlap partially; that is, if there’s any overlap, then one is a strict subset of the other. For each such set, we can (somehow) create a rough dollar estimate of the annual value of good policy in that set. These dollar values add up in the obvious way across sets.

My idea has two levels. The first level just tries to create good policy justifications for fixed policies, while the second allows policies to be changed to get better justifications. Let’s start with the first level.

Let the author of the current justification for a policy be continually paid X% (1%?) of the estimated value of its policy set (minus the values for subset policies). At anytime, anyone can challenge that author in a justification court, by offering an alternate justification, and by paying for a jury trial. At the trial, both sides can make arguments beyond the texts of their justifications. If jurors decide that this is a better justification, then that becomes the official justification, and its author now gets paid for its value.

When policies change, policy makers either offer a justification, or its an empty one that should be easy to beat by a challenger. To allow better targeting of justifications, I’d let challengers offer a justification for a strict subset of an existing policy. If the jury likes it, that would become the official justification for that subset, and its author would be paid the value for that subset. To help deal with inconsistency, I’d also let challengers offer a new justification to replace (the union of) any set of existing justifications. The challenger can argue that these different prior justifications are inconsistent, and that this new justification is overall more coherent, and better.

At least that’s my simple first-cut design. I can imagine doing better via betting markets on who would win if a jury were invoked. I can also imagine starting with a small jury and then moving to larger juries only after small jury wins, and only changing the policy justification after a large enough jury win. But for now these issues seem like distractions from our main ones concerns, so I’ll set them aside for now.

My first level proposal seems to create incentives to make policy justifications that ordinary people would accept. At least to the extent that there’s any reasonable way to justify such policies. But what if the policies are just stupid and incoherent, or at least seem so to ordinary people?

My second level tries to address this by moving further in the direction of governance by jury. Now allow challengers to also specify new policies, as well as new justifications for those new policies. As with my first level proposal, they can do this not only for particular existing policies, but also for sets of such policies, and for strict subsets. Juries are now empowered to approve such new policies along with their justifications.

As before, we might be able to improve on this via betting markets, small then larger juries, etc., but as before it seems premature to go into those details. For now, the main question must be: does this whole approach make sense? Would it be good to make policy more coherent and justified, in the eyes of ordinary citizens, even if this may come at the expense of making it less coherent and justified in the eyes of elites who might otherwise decide such things? To whom exactly should policy seem justified, if anyone?

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Governance By Jury

Among the many proposed forms of governance, some are “direct democracy” wherein all citizens vote on key choices, and some are variations on “demarchy”, i.e., assigning key roles to, or filling legislatures with, random citizens. The following proposal is similar in some ways, but seems different enough to be worth treating separately. I’m not sure if “jurarchy” is a good idea, but it seems to me simple and elegant enough to be worth considering.

Here is an especially simple version, though variations (some discussed below) may be better:

There is always a status quo set of government policies, including who sits in each key role. At any time, anyone can propose a change to these policies, if they pay fee $A. A court case then ensues, overseen by a random judge and decided by a random jury of N citizens. A key government agency is charged with defending the status quo in these cases. The judge can declare the proposal unconstitutional, or say that recent changes have invalidated it. But if not, and if M jurors support the proposal, then it becomes official policy, and challenger is awarded bounty $B.

And that’s it; everything is decided this way (aside perhaps from constitution changes). If the cost of pursing a case is $C, then we expect such challenges to be made from purely financial motives when the chance P of winning the case exceeds (A+C)/B.

Of course we might want some jury rules, such as no bribes to buy juror votes. Jurors might or might not be allowed to consult outside advisors, and might or might not be told of jury decisions on recent similar cases. Jurors might be chosen new for each case, or they might learn via sitting on juries that work together on many cases over many months.

One potential problem with the above system is that parties who stand to gain a great deal from a policy change may keep re-trying the same proposal until they happen to get a favorable jury. If they gain $G from the change itself (not via bounty), and if juries make bad decisions at error rate E, then this approach is profitable on ave when E*(B+G) exceeds A+C. Observers who believe a change was made in error would expect to profit by proposing a reversal. But is this solution enough?

A futarchy-based variation might help here. After a jury has ruled in favor of a proposal, we could immediately open up a betting market on the chance that another random jury would also favor that proposal, in a new court case. This new case might use the same values of A,B,N,M, or it might scale these up in the hope of getting a more considered judgment. This new case might be created with chance F. The original jury decision might be said to be confirmed, and implemented, only if this betting market estimated at least a conditional chance Q of confirmation. Yes, markets can also make mistakes, so this in essence just lowers error rate E.

Another potential problem is that this jury process might be too slow to make key changes. To deal with this, we might create a similar betting market as soon as a proposal is officially made, about that first jury process. A proposal might be immediately adopted if that market estimated at least a chance Q’ of the proposal winning.

I’m sure we could think of more problems, and more potential fixes. But there’s a real risk of fixes making things worse, especially as the system gets more complex, and as the citizen audience who must oversee it gets bored with complex details. So I’m attracted to very simple proposals, and tempted to just accept modest problems, instead of adding many complex fixes.

See also: Explainable Governance.

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Umpires Shouldn’t Be On Teams

There are many complex issues to consider when choosing between public vs private provision of a good or service. But one issue seems to me to clearly favor the private option: rights. If you want to make rights-enforcing rules that are actually followed, you are better off having courts or regulators enforcing rules on a competitive private industry.

Consider this excellent 2015 AJPS paper:

Many regulatory policies—especially health, safety, and environmental regulations—apply to government agencies as well as private firms. … Unlike profit‐maximizing firms, government agencies face contested, ambiguous missions and are politically constrained from raising revenue to meet regulatory requirements. At the same time, agencies do not face direct competition from other firms, rarely face elimination, and may have sympathetic political allies. Consequently, the regulator’s usual array of enforcement instruments (e.g., fines, fees, and licensure) may be potent enough to alter behavior when the target is a private firm, but less effective when the regulated entity is a government agency. …

The ultimate effect of regulatory policy turns not on the regulator’s carrots and sticks, but rather on the regulated agency’s political costs of compliance with or appeal against the regulator, and the regulator’s political costs of penalizing another government. One implication of this theory is that public agencies are less likely than similarly situated private firms to comply with regulations. Another implication is that regulators are likely to enforce regulations less vigorously against public agencies than against private firms because such enforcement is both less effective and more costly to the regulator. …

We find that public agencies are more likely than private firms to violate the regulatory requirements of the [US] Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Moreover, we find that regulators are less likely to impose severe punishment for noncompliance on public agencies than on private firms. (more)

See also:

There is evidence … that [public entities] are [better] able to delay or avoid paying fines when penalties are assessed. (more)

Public sector employees experienced a higher incidence rate of work-related injuries and illnesses than their private industry counterparts. (more)

I’ve tried but failed to find stats on public vs private relative rates of abuse, harassment, bribery, embezzlement, nepotism, and test cheating. (Can you find more?) But I’d bet they’d also show government agencies violating such rules at higher rates.

This perspective seems very relevant to criminal justice reform. Our status quo criminal justice system embodies enormous inefficiencies and injustices, but when I propose changes that involve larger roles for private actors, I keep hearing “yes that might be more efficient, but won’t private actors create more rights violations?” But the above analysis suggests that this gets the comparison exactly wrong!

Yes of course, if you compare a public org that has a rule with a private actor to whom no such rules applies, you may get more rule “violations” with the latter. And yes, enforcement of central rules can be expensive and limiting, so sometimes it makes sense to use private competition as a substitute for central rules, and so impose fewer rules on private actors. But once we allow ourselves to choose which rules to impose, private orgs seem just overall better for enforcing rules.

Note that when a government agency directly contracts with a specific private organization, using complex flexible terms and monitoring, as in military procurement, the above theory predicts that this contractor will look much more like an extension of the government agency for the purpose of rule enforcement. Rule enforcement gains come instead from private orgs that compete to be chosen by the public, or that compete to win simple public prizes where public orgs do not have so much discretion over terms that they can pick winners, but get blamed for rights violations of losers.

It is these independent private actors that I seek to recruit to reform criminal justice. We will get more, not less, enforcement of rules that protect rights, when the umpires who enforce rights are less affiliated with the teams who can violate them.

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Social Design Debt

Technical debt .. reflects the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution. (more)

In the design of complex systems, we have long observed a robust phenomenon: when people only consider local costs and benefits when making design changes, they miss the many costs that changes impose elsewhere. Such costs accumulate, and reducing them requires periodic redesign that considers larger scales of interactions. These sort of costs are naturally limited when systems frequently die to be replaced to other systems started recently from scratch. But long lasting complex systems can accumulate large costs of this sort.

For example, in contrast to most nations, apparently the US has *two federal agencies responsible for collecting economic data. Their authorizing legislation has been interpreted to mean that they can’t share details of this data with each other. A more accurate and consistent picture could be drawn about the economy from the data if such integration were allowed, but its not. Everyone in these agencies knows about this problem, but no one has bothered to try to change the authorizing legislation for a more rational outcome. New nations know to avoid this problem, but in old nations like the U.S. such problems just accumulate.

This seems to me an important and neglected issue for our longest lived social systems, such as in law and governance. In The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), Mancur Olson famously argued that nations tend to decline via accumulating organized interest groups who lobby for changes in their local interest, and veto larger changes to more efficient arrangements. This seems a closely related point, but not quite the same point.

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