Silicon Valley has dramatically altered many aspects of our lives, but Congress still operates in the same way its horse-riding forefathers did. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is not only optimistic about Congress, but thinks its general operating principles are A-OK.
“The cynical view is that everything is broken and sucks,” he told The Atlantic’s James Bennet at the magazine’s Newseum event yesterday in Washington, D.C. “My view is that the system is set up to avoid making catastrophic mistakes, and right now the country is really divided, and therefore few things should get done, except for the things that people really agree on.”
Like many in Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg is famous for running his multi-billion-dollar company at the edge of chaos with the philosophy “move fast and break things.” Employees are encouraged to ask forgiveness, not permission. Prototypes are quickly launched, piloted, improved, and then launched again. The lumbering giant of the U.S. bureaucracy is the exact opposite in almost every imaginable way: exceptions require painstaking approvals, contract bids are legally required to be inclusive of all parties, and Congress members get one shot every few years to fix a problem.
Seen from Zuckerberg’s glass-half-full perspective, if the United States hasn’t deteriorated into a Mad Max hellscape, the government is doing its job. Despite his cautious optimism, Silicon Valley folks have been trying to bring the principles of Silicon Valley innovation to D.C., but the realities of representative democracy have blunted their success.
Last year, Facebook held a “hackathon” with engineers and members of Congress to think about novel ways of keeping citizens informed. Unlike most hackathons, however, it was illegal for Congress to adopt any of the ideas, since the law views free products to government as indentured servitude.
President Obama attempted to apply a prize model to education reform with “Race to the Top,” which doles out federal money to states that find the most innovative ways to improve academic outcomes. Unlike a competition for launching an inexpensive rocket into space, there is fierce political opposition to the education goals, like teacher evaluations or funding for union-less charter experiments.
Frustrated by internal opposition to change, the president’s former Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel told me that his strategy was to hire people from Silicon Valley to replace the old guard. VanRoekel and his enthusiastic compatriot Chief Technology Officer Todd Park have been successful in opening up some government data on health, education and safety. However, some of their aspirations, such as developing a secure foreign-aid transfer system, are yet to be completed.
The principles of representative democracy and Silicon Valley are not always a happy couple. Facebook can risk more, because even if the entire company fails, its users won’t end up resorting to cannibalism in a post-nuclear apocalyptic dystopia. Neither does Facebook have to be overly inclusive in every product contract, for fear of perpetuating the cabal of established powers.
At TechCrunch, we’re experimenting with crowdsourced federal legislation and helping the city of San Francisco think through online direct democracy. It is our hope that we can bring a little bit of innovation to the democratic process.