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The Future of Government

Our current system of government rests on faulty assumptions about how people think and vote. To deal with the world's most challenging problems—present and future—it needs fundamental change.

This guest post is part of GOOD's series with the Institute for the Future.

Last week Mathias introduced you to the need for futures thinking in our society. And it requires no lengthy argument to say that among the institutions in most dire need are those of government. I was trained, and spend much of my time working, as a political futurist, researching and writing on the history and possible futures of political systems. I’m not interested in forecasting what party will win the next election, but rather in how we will prioritize what matters in the world, and how we will organize ourselves in the coming decades in order to create favorable conditions for fairness, happiness, and sustainability at a global scale. The big stuff.

Most of the failings of government can be connected to the fundamental assumption that humans are rational creatures and the inherent structural biases toward mechanical processes and short-term thinking. Politicians understand at an almost cellular level: The future doesn’t vote.

Our systems of government incentivize short-term rewards at the expense of long-term gains. To be elected, and certainly re-elected, in our current system of two-, four-, or six-year cycles, our representatives must demonstrate measurable gains (or more promises of gains) to their constituents on a very short time horizon. Longer-term goals can be advanced within the current system, but these are rare accomplishments. It is, however, not rare to see a politician giving lip service to future generations all the while pumping their constituents with short-term benefits.

Second, governance designs are outdated. We have spent the past 200 years designing and building governments as we would build clocks. We assume that reality is knowable, predictable, and mechanical. We believe that powers can be separated and balanced against each other, that deliberative processes will yield fair laws, and that the common good can be raised by the self-interested behavior of individuals. Well, virtually all the physical and biological science of the past two centuries have chipped away at the worldview that reality can be known objectively and managed predictably. We live in a chaotic, unpredictable world that can only be sensed by our limited biological and technological tools of observation.

The consequences of these structural dynamics were bad enough when we were just trying to organize people and resources within bounded geographical regions. However, the design failings of our governance systems take on existential scale and global importance in the current Anthropocene Era—where we are responsible for governing nothing less than “life on Earth.” The stakes have never been higher, and we need a new way of thinking about governance if we are to survive and thrive.

There is a term, "governmentality," that is used mostly in the rarefied air of political theory, but deserves wider application. In an unusually pithy definition provided by Michel Foucault, governmentality is the way government “conducts conduct.” The term refers to the particular “mentality” of government—the tools and techniques the government uses to “sense” and “think,” and how it creates and manages its citizens and its resources based on these sensations.

In the industrial era, we saw the rise of a governmentality of control through the management of enclosures: from the regimenting of time to the disciplining of space. In life, we moved from schoolhouse to barracks to factory. Now, the prevailing governmentality is one of ambient, embedded, and persistent control. It is a control that does not end when the five o’clock whistle blows, but is integrated into the very fiber of our existence. It is exemplified by the always-on corporate knowledge worker, who cannot draw a meaningful line between work and home, or between public and private. It is an era in which we brush up against government not just at the voting booth or at the DMV, but every time we share a song with a friend.

We need designers, political scientists, and social activists—all citizens who care about our collective futures—to do what hasn’t been done in generations: to take up the challenge of designing new systems of governance. And we can start by thinking about what kind of governmentality is needed to address the wicked problems of climate change, global inequity, and the technological disruptions of the 21st Century.

We need systems of governance that are open, accessible, and learning. They need to embody the latest thinking about how the world works, how people work, and how we can use our technologies to make life better for all. There are people working on the ground in regions all over the world trying to solve persistent problems with government. Innovators in Wiki-government, Government 2.0, and a host of social media-based platforms such as GovLoop and Expert Labs are experimenting with structures of governance drawn from the successes of the web to open up government and connect people.

Besides making the crafting of policy much more participatory, these initiatives also have the potential to transform the way representatives interact with their constituencies and with each other. Communication feedback loops will become much tighter and potentially more effective. “Taking the pulse” of the public was once done with surveys and polling—relatively slow, low resolution, and often biased processes. Now, with tools like Twitter, we can get a minute-by-minute update on public opinion and mood.

Researcher Mark Elliott and others are re-thinking governance in terms of stigmergy, the emergent process that enables complex structures such as termite mounds. Stigmergic collaboration and citizen wikis were the basis of the Australian Bill of Rights Initiative, and the New Zealand Police Act.

And within IFTF’s recent massively multiplayer forecasting game Superstruct, players designed dozens of prototype governance structures. Among my favorites was the group Quantum Governance. Quantum governance was a thought experiment that originated from a group of political scientists and students at the University of Hawaii in the early 1980s. It is based on the idea that we need to re-design government around insights from new physics, such as holism, uncertainty, and the effects of observers on reality—a very different approach from the mechanical system in place now.

These threads are starting to converge, and suggest the emergence of a new kind of citizen-based governance. We are using communication technologies and new insights from science to re-imagine how we "conduct conduct" on this planet. The scale of this re-imagination and re-design is unprecedented, just as the scale of the problems we face is unprecedented.

In the book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein documented the way certain policies were rammed through Congress following crises and major upheavals. These policies were written well beforehand, just waiting for the right moment to execute. If we are to be successful in transforming governance for the 21st Century, we need to be designing future-friendly policies and systems right now, and be ready to act when the moment to intervene is upon us. And given the state of the world right now, there will be ample “shocks” to make cracks in our outdated systems.

Perhaps the future cannot vote, but we can vote on our future.

Jake Dunagan is a research director at The Institute for the Future.

Second illustration by Claire A. Thompson. Claire is a summer intern at IFTF.

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