the design of democracy

The questions you ask limit the answers you can come up with. -Michele Tepper | FrogDesign
A lot of time has been spent (and probably will be spent) on debating the merits of a unicameral vs. a bicameral legislature, of a parliamentary vs. presidential system.

I know the legal luminaries, the experts on public governance and political science have weighed in on the project along with a thousand pundits and bloggers so I've avoided putting in a comment.

What I haven't seen though is the problem tackled by a design mindset. (See the UK Design Council's RED project, as a reference.)

The designer looks at both users and end results and then then traces the dynamic back to driving forces that move the users and shape the results. The designer looks at the dynamic not the rationales and rethinks the dynamic to leverage the driving forces. The designer begins by asking the right questions and understanding how the system operates (in its current form) before positing possible solutions. The design approach is agnostic and amoral in its analysis while producing ethical and forthright solutions.

So here goes. I will take a break from mind-mapping our city. Over the next few posts I will tackle the question of the design of democracy in our country.

Parliamentary or presidential? Unicameral or bicameral? I think the debates miss the problem entirely. Whatever form of government we choose (or not choose) the essential problem we face is corruption at the polls -and the successive doubt and distrust of both the results and the government-elect. No subsequent Philippine state will achieve legitimacy until we remove the cloud of doubt that hangs over our electoral process.

The doubt is built on two factors. One is the suspicion of corruption, of rigging the polls and wholesale vote buying.

The other is the seeming surfeit dearth of worthy candidates from which to choose our leaders. As Willy Priles opined in one of his recent posts, we seem to be forced to select from among the dregs that the parties serve up for national posts. The two major flavors the parties seem to be intent on foisting are ex-media personalities or scions of established politicians. Both trade on name recognition. The former from extensive media exposure, the latter from news familiarity and name recall.

You can change the form of state any which way you want but until we address this two-pronged doubt, all successive governments will be (in the best case scenario) treated with benign distrust or assailed with questions of legitimacy.

The quick answer is to reform the comelec. Build integrity into the agency charged with safeguarding the elections and people will trust electoral results. That's why we've been trying to automate the voting booths. But computerization and a trustworthy Comelec is a partial answer. Computerized systems can also be rigged and hacked. And even the most highly regarded officials can have their integrity swiftboated. All a spinmeister need do is to create doubt to start the public sliding along the slippery slope to distrust, while the media feed the conflagration by playing on the hesaid/shesaid conflict.

Evenso, computerization and a total overhaul of the comelec will not even begin to tackle the question of serving up and selecting would-be leaders nor will it severe the dynamic that warps it from its roots in nepotism and media manipulation.

The solution must go deeper. We have to look at the dynamics driving the electoral problems and look at the processes driving the selection of candidates.

I see three driving forces that are interconnected:
  1. The strong positive feedback loop -power begets power. power is a barrier to entry.
  2. The power of filters and information agglomerators - modern popular elections have 50M voters selecting leaders they will probably never meet in person so the game belongs to the marketers and image keepers while campaigns are not about governance but about attacking and defending brands.
  3. The relative cost per vote in very large elections - which makes votes more expensive by bulk but cheaper by the unit. (Here, I use "cost" in an amoral sense.) e.g., When selecting a mayor, each vote can be as cheap as 1/1,500,000 per unit (which is the ratio of 1 vote vs. the total number of would be voters). Selecting a senator or a president prices the unit at 1/50,000,000.
I will tackle each of these driving forces in successive posts and prototype some possible design approaches to mitigate the effects or even find solutions.

Image from of twotone streetart's flickr collection.


Sidney said...

Long time since I visited you. Sorry.

Good analysis as always.
I would like to add my idea that everything goes down to EDUCATION. Educate your people (to become critical citizens) and you can be sure that you will get better leaders. You don’t fool educated people so easily.
(Once you got an electorate which is educated you will not be able to buy people’s votes or it will not be enough to be a popular actor).
EDUCATE your people and most of the problems you encounter in the Philippines will be resolved.

Urbano dela Cruz said...

Thanks for visiting, sydney.

I'd like to agree that education is probably key -I mean it sounds totally logical, doesn't it? We get bad leaders because we don't have educated voters.

BUT, I can't find the data that supports this. You can probably graph a direct relationship between higher educational attainment vs. economic stability. You'd have to ask, what's the buggy and what's the horse in the equation? Does high educational attainment lead to better GDP? Or does better GDP lead to better educational opportunities?

Although I believe basic education does have an effect on electoral choice, how do you quantify leadership ability vs. education. Do we use universal basic education? Literacy rates? If we based it on number of PhDs per capita -then the US, China, India and South Korea should be producing the most capable governments in the world. (Go ask their citizens if they are happy with their governments.)

Electoral participation (as a percentage of voting population) is falling in most developed countries. Barely a third of US voters actually take the time to vote. The numbers are not much better for Eurozone.

Plus you get the lagtime problem: Even if we overhauled the system tomorrow, it'll still take us over a generation to get any substantial effects from a better educational system.

Education must be improved -and the provision of basic education should become universal but that may be, like the debate about forms of government, beside the point.

Education is probably a driver -as far as informed choices go but it may be a weak driver against the information assymetry presented by today's high cost, media dominated electoral campaigns.

Sidney said...

Good point(s) !

Rico Covas-Arias said...


Looking forward to hearing more about your thoughts on this.

You might find it interesting to know that I actually once heard a drunken remark from an elitist about how the right to vote in the Philippines should come with qualifications (a "caste-rank"? proven sobriety?)

Obviously, there is no political will to reform the Comelec. I suspect this really a function of a sincere belief from the existing leadership that they are the most qualified to lead and manage the government.

It's funny how I used to hear talk about the need for us to see strong leadership, albeit a well-guided one - God forsake everything else. I just want to see effetive and stable leadership. Of course it's important that a fair electoral process produces that. But until then, I just wish that the guys on top right now give back more than they take.

Urbano dela Cruz said...


thanks for the comments.

I've heard that drunken man's idea over the years - in many forms. Usually I hear (very rational people) say that "only taxpayers should be able to vote."

Of course most people who say this actually mean "our elections should not be driven by the poor who are too uneducated to make good decisions about leaders."

To which I always have to point out that the poor also pay taxes (in the form of sales taxes, road taxes, government fees, etc.) -and these taxes take a higher proportion of their income (vs. the middle or upper classes). Should we restrict it to people who actually get a witholding tax? What about tax evaders?

I also point out that local people's organizations (be they urban poor coops or transport coops) usually do produce very effective leaders. (I know some people will contest that on the basis of some sorry examples from the more politically oriented organizations. I must say though that the middle class and elite political groups have also produced leadership disasters.)

The reason I am writing about this (the design of democracy) is that I believe there is a systemic problem we need to confront about the way we choose candidates for electoral leadership. And by choose, I don't mean our personal application of moral standards, but by the way the system works.

I am really excited about these ideas so I hope you stay tuned.


koikaze said...

Good Morning, Urbano

It took me some time to get your 7 posts on the Design of Democracy, not because they were hidden, but because I didn't know how. I'd forgotten that they'd be "backwards" because of the way this site works. When I finally "got it", I felt foolish, but that's in the past and I can move on. The following comments are inspired by Design Of Democracy (1):

re: "The designer looks at the dynamic not the rationales and rethinks the dynamic to leverage the driving forces."

(This view will probably be revised as I read your subsequent posts,)

The prime dynamic in human relations is the pursuit of self-interest. In its broadest sense (as intended in this assertion), self-interest includes all human activity individuals percieve to be advantageous to themselves.

The social impact of the forms of the pursuit of self-interest differ greatly. Charity, which serves one's self-esteem, industriousness, which serves one's need for self-sufficiency, and greed, which serves one's acqusitiveness, all have different impacts on society. Some, like charity, are beneficial. Others, like greed and the lust for power, must be gratified at the expense of other members of the community.

Greed and the lust for power are not going to "go away". They are, and will continue to be, part of each and every one of us; dormant in some, virulent in others. The design, then (in my opinion), will be soundest if it recognizes the negative social impact of such traits and harnesses them. (I've described a method of harnessing excessive greed. Unfortunately, it can only be implemented by a legislature free of the influence of the vested interests that benefit from excessive greed. A tough proposition, that.)

. . . . . . . . . .

In the sentence, "The other is the seeming surfeit of worthy candidates from which to choose our leaders."

Should the word "surfeit" be "dearth"?

. . . . . . . . . .

re: "The quick answer is to reform the comelec. Build integrity into the agency charged with safeguarding the elections and people will trust electoral results."

I'm not familiar with the term "comelec", but am taking it to mean "Election Commission". The quote above implies that the current election commission is perceived to lack integrity. It may seem improper for me to comment on an issue where I'm not even familiar with a central term. I'm emboldened to do so because your presentation seems clear. You've seen fit to undertake a Design for Democracy and have commented on the corruption and lack of confidence is the current structure. It does not seem a stretch to me to make the following comment.

Assuming my understanding of your meaning is correct, and granting in advance that I'm unfamiliar with the specific circumstances you mention, I'd like to point out that corrupt institutions beget corrupt watchdogs. We have broad experience with that problem here in my country. We have no shortage of election commissions and budgetary watchdogs. They tend to be ineffective because their corrupt overseers either staff them with hacks, deny them enforcement power, or create means to circumvent their control.

Morality is a top-down phenomenon. Lower echelons of government will not be more virtuous than the levels above them.

All the foregoing is rendered superfluous by your excellent summation:

Even so, computerization and a total overhaul of the comelec will not even begin to tackle the question of serving up and selecting would-be leaders nor will it severe the dynamic that warps it from its roots in nepotism and media manipulation.

. . . . . . . . . .

I will study your description of the three driving forces that constitute the dynamics of electoral problems and comment on them as best I can.

. . . . . . . . . .

Sidney said...

"EDUCATE your people and most of the problems you encounter in the Philippines will be resolved."

I respectfully disagree with Sidney's opinion about the efficacy of education. While I obviously can not speak for circumstances in the Philippines, I can tell you that we've had compulsory education in the United States for 150 years and it has not reduced our political problems. The corruption in our country is monumental.

re: "You don't fool educated people so easily."

That would be valid if we were able to insure that people made their political decisions on the basis of intellect rather than passion. But, we can't. Quite the contrary. Through the work of B. F. Skinner and other behavioral scientists, the art of public manipulation has been honed to such a degree that people routinely act contrary to their own best interests (not as they perceive them, but as defined by objective observers ... the assumption of enormous debt burdens being but the most obvious example).

re: "(Once you got an electorate which is educated you will not be able to buy people's votes or it will not be enough to be a popular actor)."

In my opinion, this suggestion is inaccurate. Whatever the qualities of their service may have been, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan both owed part of their popularity to their acting, one in entertainment theatres and the other in theaters of combat.

Whether or not votes can be bought may be a semantic question. If one restricts vote buying to cash transactions with voters, Sidney may be right. If one sees vote buying as the provision of resources to influence public perceptions, education does not prevent buying votes. We see that clearly here in the U. S. where election campaigns are designed to inflame passions rather then appeal to reason.

None of this is to denigrate education. It is simply to say that, if education is to be effective, it must have an infrastructure that responds to reason rather than passion.

. . . . . . . . . .

Rico Covas-Arias said...

"I just want to see effetive and stable leadership. Of course it's important that a fair electoral process produces that."

I agree with Rico as to goal and with Urbano's response:

"The reason I am writing about this (the design of democracy) is that I believe there is a systemic problem we need to confront about the way we choose candidates for electoral leadership. And by choose, I don't mean our personal application of moral standards, but by the way the system works."

I'm here because I believe Urbano is working on the important aspect of politics. I'm thankful that he's seen fit to address the issue. I sincerely hope others will thoughtfully criticize the ideas presented for the design of democracy so we can lay the groundwork for a sounder political system ... a hundred years hence.


Urbano dela Cruz said...


thank you so much for your very engaged reading -and very involved comments.

sorry for the delayed reply (i'm starting to sound like a broken record) - I was on a long business trip this weekend. (which included a 10.5 hour drive in a snowstorm. -don't ask.)

first of: thanks for catching the faux pas - I did mean dearth, and left the 'surfeit' when I originally wrote 'a surfeit of unqualified candidates' but lost it on the edit.

As to your view of "The prime dynamic in human relations is the pursuit of self-interest" - I would tend to agree but I do think the jury is still out on that. the socio-biologists and neurologists still can adequately explain altruistic acts.

that aside, I would be wary to impute motives on our would be leaders. are they greedy? do they lust for power? are they machiavellian and sincerely think that the ends justify the means?

I cannot make that judgement whole cloth.

As a designer, what I can see are the gears in the machine. How one gear drives another -how one switch tumbles into another. I can see the operation -the cause and effect -and can divorce that from personal motives (benign or otherwise).

I am studying your own proposed Troika /Active Democracy Method for selecting leaders and hope to make comments soon.


My analysis is particular to my home country. hence the references to the COMELEC (which is the national commission on elections). -and hence the parameters which include a national campaign based model. (c.f. - in the Philippines, we elect 24 senators on the national level)

btw, have you read Sam Smith's recent article: Myth and the audacity of reality"?

koikaze said...

Good Morning, Urbano

Thank you for the link. I'd never heard of Sam Smith. His manner of expression is interesting but his lamentations about our political existence are not greatly different from those frequently expressed by others. We have no shortage of people telling us how bad things are (from their point of view). What we lack are people like yourself who understand that there is a functional cause for the failures of democracy.

That's why I find your work so exciting. You're the first person I've come across who's willing to examine the system for the purpose of improving its effectiveness.

I'm almost 78 years old. Who knows how much time I have left to ponder these questions and try to encourage others to look at them, too. You've given me hope that my ruminations are not a complete waste; that I'm not out of my mind to hold such views; in short, that I'm not alone and will not leave a void.

I believe we can ... and will ... improve our society. It may be "a hundred years hence" or even more, but it will come. I may not have the method exactly right but I'm not seeking agreement, I'm seeking improvement.

Thank you for expressing your ideas.


koikaze said...

Good Morning, Urbano

Are you familiar with the thoughts of Professor Jane Mansbridge at the Kennedy School of Government at your alma mater? It appears that, in a lecture at the Australian National University she suggested that instead of seeking to control elected officials, "... a better strategy is to allow more discretion in office and concentrate on three goals: one, select better legislators to begin with; two, communicate with both legislators and bureaucrats in settings where they have a strong incentive to listen; and three, kick out the legislators who don't do their job well."

I wonder if she has considered the possibility that empowering partisans is not necessarily a sound basis for democracy. I wonder if she has considered or advocates a method of selecting better representatives? If she has, I'd like to read it. Do you know anything of her work?



Urbano dela Cruz said...


I must admit I not too familiar with Mansbridge or her thoughts.

Sounds like she is mixing the management issues (how do we get more productive legislators) with the selection issues (how do we choose our legislators).


anton said...

i have some objections, if you don't mind. i do not think that the kind of people who become babrangay captains (people who are good at settling and appeasing in the small neighborly scale) are likely to be competent on the national level. case and point Erap was mayor of san juan where he seemed to do a good job, but failed spectacularly as a president. plus, if the voters have no control other than who gets elected in the barangay level and only these officials get to choose among themselves who advances the political ladder, then transparency and accountability is actually reduced. dealing and politiking increases with the smaller electorate. once someone has risen (corruptly)through the ranks he will then have accumulated quite enough funds to bribe 3000 voters in the next election while his neighbors will not have that power, as long as he remains registered in that same district he has an anchor in politics forever (yes, there is cheating and dishonesty even in the barangay level). the same money and political clout then gives him greater influence among the smaller and smaller circles through which he must advance himself or his favored ally in a process in which the electorate is both blind and impotent.
but the problems that you pointed out, information asymmetry, the difference in the campaigning power of certain candidates do contribute greatly to the failure of the present system. since that is so, wouldn't it be easier to reform how candidates campaign than to change the system entirely? if you set a limit that was very small on the amount of money that any candidate could spend on his campaign, watched their spending very closely, had private agencies bringing to light each candidate's history, reputation, political platforms, agendas, policies and plans that would also address the problems without the major (and incredibly difficult)over-haul you propose. at least thats how i see it.

Urbano dela Cruz said...

thanks, anton, for your thoughts and comments. and welcome to the party.

first, you'd have to prove that assertion that being the chief executive of a small jurisdiction does not prepare you for the larger roles. isn't the the whole model of leadership development in the private sector and the military? prove yourself in small responsibilities first, then grow on to bigger ones.

erap wouldn't really be a good example since he was corrupt from the start.

second, if the only track to get to the presidency is to run for barangay captain, then all would be presidents would have to run for b. captain. imagine having mar roxas run in your neighborhood for b.c. - or winnie monsod or (insert name of responsible leader here)

you'll need to re-read my proposal. the barangay captain is not chosen by his peers but by reducing the size of the electorate, you effectively raise the stakes -and make it more competitive. I worked out the numbers in post #4 in the series. If he wants to buy his way to the b.c. post - he'll can shell out as much money as he wants - but because the size of the electorate is so small, someone else can easily match his price at this stage. they can keep bidding up the price of the vote - till it becomes ridiculous or ridiculously conspicuous.

And his neighbors will ALWAYS have the power to vote him out of office the next elections -even if he makes it to the presidency.

see post #2 about reforming campaign rules and setting campaign cost limits. It doesn't work.

this is a major overhaul (though I think of it more as a though exercise) -but we've been trying to solve the problem of our democracy through more and more complex laws, and it hasn't seem to have gotten us anywhere.

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