Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 3, 2011

Useless or Faceless?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on August 3, 2011

John Quincy Adams is often quoted as having said, “One useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a Congress.” Another unnamed sage quipped, “Congress is continually appointing fact-finding committees, when what we really need are some fact-facing committees.” This past month’s acrimonious debt debates have done nothing to disprove either theorem despite their success in passing legislation to avert the nation’s first-ever default on its public debt.

It’s easy to see the tortured process of the past month and the polarized politics propelling the participants as a product of a deeply ambivalent body politic. But that would be too convenient and untrue to boot.

As Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation explained in a recent article, surveys indicate that the public at-large is much more reasonable and responsible than its representatives in Congress. Clear majorities of self-identified Republicans supported higher taxes and fewer spending cuts than those adopted yesterday. Likewise, a substantial proportion of self-identified Democrats were more than willing to amend entitlement eligibility criteria and make broader and deeper cuts to prevent default.

Politicians that pay too much attention to the polls are often derided by their rivals, who like to allege that this tendency suggests a lack of leadership ability closely akin to a moral failing. Direct democracy has its proponents, but few of even the most ardent advocates of participatory democracy would argue that it serves as either an efficient or effective way of making complex and critical decisions like those surrounding the federal budget and deficits. But how much messier would it really be than what we have all just witnessed?

The dynamics of group decision-making intrigue me. In his 2005 bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki, addressed the strengths and weaknesses of group decision-making to three particular kinds of problems:

  • Cognition problems, which require decision makers to infer unknowns from known conditions;
  • Coordination problems, which require decision-makers to achieve efficient outcomes under uncertain, competitive conditions; and
  • Cooperation problems, which involve getting “self-interested, distrustful people to work together, even when narrow self-interest would seem to dictate that no individual should take part.”

I think it’s self-explanatory which type of problem deficit-cutting most closely resembles. Surowiecki argued that effective group decision-making in all of these situations depends on three conditions: 1) diversity, 2) independence, and 3) (a particular kind of) decentralization. Congress fails on all three counts, and the process proposed in the legislation for goading our representatives into action does little if anything to improve this sorry situation.

Surowiecki notes that diversity and independence matter — particularly when solving cognition problems — “because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” Decentralization on the other hand mediates the influence of disagreement and conflict because “Groups benefit from members talking to and learning from each other, but too much communication, paradoxically, can actually make the group as a whole less intelligent.”

Balancing the three decision-making prerequisites is clearly a challenging endeavor, and sometimes more difficult than the problem itself. As a result, some of the best decision-making methods use mechanisms like market-pricing and intelligent voting systems to aggregate individual judgments to produce more accurate representations of the collective mind than would otherwise emerge from direct communication among participants.

These observations may or may not suggest the need for Constitutional or procedural reforms to make Congress function more efficiently and effectively when dealing with such contentious issues. But they should inform our assessment of what it takes to improve the performance of programs and activities affected by the looming budget cuts resulting from yesterday’s Grand and Smelly Compromise.

How might we engage the wisdom of crowds to improve the performance of homeland security and domestic intelligence operations? What applications of these or related concepts are already bearing fruit?

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4 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 3, 2011 @ 6:51 am

Another great post from Mark! Why is this guy not running the Fire Service generally?

Anyhow voter turnout is the key. NO crowds at the voting booth and predicting record low turnout during 2012 Presidential elections as only those motivated against a candidate likely to vote. Few who actually vote for a candidate. Result unknown but the Independents are the crowd and must vote in huge numbers in order to control the self-destructive tendencies of the Republicans and DEMS.

As WWI represents to me the suicide of Western Civilization, the debt ceiling debate represents to me the suicide of American ability to be a world leader on many fronts, including simple justice and equity for its citizenry. But hey I live largely off grid now and try to help in small ways my largely black friends in my community in small ways. They mostly have no jobs, no health care and little education. And the black Rosenwald High School (which still stands because largely constructed of Cedar) that closed in 1959 is up for sale when it should be a national historic monument.
For those who don’t know the story of the Rosenwald schools here it is in brief and now described in detail in two separate accounts published in last decade. DISCLOSURE: I did not know this story either until I read in 2005 upon arrival here the historic marker at the roadside.
First, in the 11 states of the old confederacy it was a criminal act to teach black slaves to read and write. Then post civil war no public schools for blacks in those states. Julius Rosenwald, Chairman and CEO of Sears Roebuck and Company paid out of his own pocket for 5,000 black schools to be built so that black children could be educated. This was the case largely in the south until the end of WWII. So there you have it. And it makes me wonder whether in fact reparations are owed to the black community given this history. The notion of course, and apparently it is now just a notion, that the citizens of the USA need education to perform their functions in a democracy including voting, seems to drift away year by year nationwide except for small pockets of excellence. It always has interested to me that the communities that seem most RESILIENT are in fact that invest in education for their citizens. Why not have ZILLOW.com include an assessment of the public schools for each property listed? Perhaps paid for by one of the large operating foundations (501(C)(3)s that focus on education in the USA.
Where I live, public education is the last glue holding the community together and those who move here from more resilient communities.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 3, 2011 @ 6:52 am

Probably should have mentioned my ethnic background is Polish, Scottish, and Welsh.

Comment by Mark Chubb

August 3, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

Like many really interesting questions, Bill, yours has two answers. First, no one really runs the fire service. That is especially true at a national level, but often no less so at the local level. Second, I’m a much more energetic academic than an able administrator.

The idea for this post emerged from comments on my last post involving Phil, you and John Comiskey. Phil suggested that people in a democracy get the government they deserve. I wondered whether this was true when I saw polls suggesting a deeper divide between our representatives and the body politic than among the political party leaders in Congress and the White House.

You wondered whether a corrupt government reflected a corrupt people. I sometimes wonder whether our nation has lost its way (what passes for television programming usually provokes this response immediately), but I still believe in the genuine goodness of people in general and Americans in particular. That said, I think we can let ourselves be duped into making really bad choices, especially when the consequences accrue to others, including our future selves and future generations.

John for his part really took up the challenge in these musings and offered a multi-part plan for restoring American vigor. While I do not agree with all of his specific recommendations, I see a lot to recommend his proposals and see in them the product of serious reflection and a heartfelt commitment to making the country better.

That brings me back to the wisdom of crowds. I find that the more people I talk to and listen to, the more we have in common. Despite any disagreements we may have about the specifics, we all want to make things better eventually, even if that means making some sacrifices today.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 4, 2011 @ 5:08 am

Hope springs eternal with some of US!

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