Kludges and Cockroaches: How Dysfunctional Government Evolves

Imagine yourself as a US pollster in the last weeks of 2012. The presidential horserace has come to an end. The last last trendline has been drawn; the last data visualized. After sleeping for about a week, you step back into the office, sit down at your desk, and ask yourself: “What do we do now?”

If you work for Public Policy Polling, the answer turns out to be “Ask people if they like cockroaches better than Congress.” And the answer to that question should deeply concern (and amuse) us all.

Compared to the average House Rep, this is apparently a compliment now.

Said pollster Dean Debnam:

“We all know Congress is unpopular… But the fact that voters like it even less than cockroaches, lice, and Genghis Khan really shows how far its esteem has fallen with the American public over the last few weeks.”

 

How did we get here?

While Republicans and Democrats have been fighting for decades over the size of government, political scientist Steven Teles argued recently that the best question isn’t how big, but how complex government should be. He calls the American answer to this question kludgeocracy: a system characterized by the “clumsy but temporarily effective solution,” with little sense of overall order or coordination.

While the term comes from software development, kludges have been around for a long time. Kludges are the modus operandi of evolution, which has no mechanism to plan for the long term–ad hoc solutions are piled on top of each other at every step. For every elegant symbiotic relationship, there’s a condition like diabetes (which may have helped northern peoples withstand cold during the last Ice Age) or sickle cell disease (which conferred resistance to malaria in sub-tropical zones). These conditions are useful for surviving a crisis but raise all sorts of problems in the long term.

In government, kludges arise from similar crises. Federalism and the ideal of a small, constrained national government were ideological and legal tools that let the economically and culturally divided post-Revolution American colonies form a united government. This was an excellent strategy for a nascent nation in which building a strong democratic government right away was politically impossible. Today, however, these constraints don’t limit government action so much as complicate it. Teles writes:

“American institutions do, in fact, serve to constrain the most direct forms of government taxing and spending. But having done so, they do not dry up popular or special interest demands for government action, nor do they eliminate the desire of politicians to claim credit for new government activity. Public demand, when prevented from flowing directly, does not disappear. Instead, it spreads out in complicated, unpredictable ways.”

 

A common example of this kind of complication is the proliferation of overlapping federal, state, regional, and local government agencies with shared responsibility for particular outcomes. In my field of transportation planning, infrastructure projects are often a shared effort of the federal Department of Transportation, state DoTs, regional planning and transportation authorities (like New York’s MTA), and local governments–all aided, in the background, by countless consultants who profit from helping understaffed agencies navigate the complexity. Even with plans in place, successfully funding a major project requires that politicians from city counselors and mayors to governors and senators work together to raise different cash streams, including federal appropriations and local tax levies.

Again, it’s worth asking how we got here. A large piece of the answer is that in politics, it’s often easier to create a program than to destroy or merge existing ones. Existing programs have constituents and beneficiaries. When a problem emerges that the existing policy regime can’t solve, it’s (relatively) easy to add a department or committee to solve that problem, but harder to make it strong enough to replace old ones or streamline the process.

Randall Munroe, xkcd

Teles is skeptical that kludgeocracy can be changed anytime soon; from an evolutionary perspective, we might say that selection pressures aren’t yet strong enough to force a pruning of government complexity. (But perhaps being compared unfavorably to root canals will spark some change.) In the meantime, though, he suggests that improvements can be found around the margins–and “in any case knowing what one would do to reverse the problem is necessary if only to know how to keep it from getting any worse.” At the local level his principles suggest a few important changes:

  • Building in-house capacity rather than outsourcing to consultants who, in the long term, benefit from inelegant solutions
  • Creating ‘one-stop shops’ for permitting and compliance that reduce the number of hoops citizens and businesses must jump through
  • Making the complexity of bad policies more obvious to the public–such as by measuring and publishing compliance costs–instead of hiding it, in order to build political pressure for better approaches

While Congress exemplifies kludgeocracy, the American electorate seems to be catching on. Outside American national politics, though, the idea can add a lot to policy debates and help us diagnose real or potential failures. Liberals and conservatives alike can find common ground in the idea that, no matter the size of our government, we’re all better served when it’s transparent, comprehensible, and effective.

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