In 2017 Can Data Deliver Us A More Efficient Democracy?

Donald Trump’s election has called into question both long-standing and bedrock goals of American policymakers: From maintaining a stable international alliance system to striving for universal medical coverage, Trump’s campaign has promised to go its own way based more on ideological conviction than historical evidence. We are in for a bumpy ride in the years ahead. Trump’s victory has also cemented the view across emerging powers and developing countries that Western-style democracy is not the “end of history,” even though there are elements of the rule of law, protection of political and social rights, and entrepreneurial freedom that are admirable and worth integrating into their own systems. Indeed, recent research suggests that even in Western societies, support for democracy has been steadily waning.

In western thought, a deep complacency has set in that confuses politics with governance, democracy with delivery, process with outcomes. But the “will of the people” is not just to repeat their desires over and over without results. Indeed, as Princeton scholar Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page of Northwestern pointed out in their widely cited research, when the preferences of average voters diverge from those of the elite, Congress votes for the elite without exception.  Their conclusion: America is an oligarchy—governed by a corrupt, rent-seeking elite—not a democracy.
For democracy to be admired, it has to deliver. Elections are an instrument of accountability, not a mode of delivery. The input legitimacy of democracy can never compensate for the output legitimacy of delivering the basics. The chaos of democracy may be beautiful, but it’s not worth the price of making a country ungovernable. America’s political system is now unable to escape itself, to design laws that anticipate their own unintended consequences and make society better.

As I argue in a new book, “direct technocracy” would be a superior system, one led by experts but perpetually consulting the people through a combination of democracy and data. Direct technocracy is designed to respond efficiently to citizens’ needs and preferences, learn from international experience in devising policies, and use data and scenarios for long-term planning. If done right, such governments marry the virtues of democratic inclusiveness with the effectiveness of technocratic management.
In my research I have found that even highly democratic countries such as Switzerland are more technocratic than we think. Of course no country holds more plebiscites than Switzerland. At the same time, a highly educated caste of professional bureaucrats devotes decades-long careers to overseeing a consistent tax policy, ensuring that the sacrosanct rule of law applies to everyone, and managing the country’s world-class infrastructure—making sure the trains run like clockwork. Not only the government but also the workforce is highly technocratic: Trained, competent and productive workers who virtually never go on strike. Democracy doesn’t deliver Switzerland’s perfectionist efficiencies; technocracy does.
And even highly technocratic states such as Singapore are more democratic than most assume. Thought the People’s Action Party (PAP) of Lee Kuan Yew still dominates parliament and his son is the current prime minister, national governance is very much executed by a highly independent civil service that uses scenario-planning to forecast social needs and plan public spending and services accordingly. Importantly, strategic long-term questions are aired systematically with the population.

Over the course of 2013, for example, the “Our Singapore Conversation” process convened 660 dialogues with over 47,000 participants, surveyed 4,000 more citizens, and partnered with 40 different NGOs to collect views. Similarly, in 2015 Singapore launched a Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) to map out the country’s path towards adopting new industries and training its students and workforce accordingly. Anchored in the civil service, the process involved every ministry, dozens of domestic and foreign executives, and hundreds of academics and technology experts. In a high-tech version of Switzerland’s referendum model, Singapore also launched a platform for online petitions (called “GoPetition”) and established a parliamentary committee to derive recommendations from them. In all of these cases, recommendations are acted on within months, not years (or never). Not surprisingly, no matter where Singapore ranks on Western indices of democracy, its government enjoys among the highest level of public trust in the world.

It is not only small countries that can blend democracy and technocracy into a more effective state. I have found many instructive lessons in in Germany’s coalition style of parliament and the way its courts strive to adapt the constitution to modern society, and in China’s rigorous training of Party elites prior to assuming higher office. As I suggest in Technocracy in America, such modifications are widely applicable to American government. If America’s political elites can break out of the downward cycle of special-interest driven politics and think about how to evolve the country’s institutions, then the U.S. would not only become a better democracy, but a more admired one as well.

Parag Khanna is author of the new book Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State (2017) out on January 10th, from which this article is adapted.