In his lecture “Fixing Broken Government” for the Long Now Foundation, Philip K. Howard suggests that this time of trouble in the US might be one in which we can make some big, useful changes. He hopes for a change in “governmental operating system” comparable to the Progressive, New Deal, and Civil Rights eras. Instead of protecting children and other workers, establishing safety nets, or addressing civil rights abuses, however, he would like to un-paralyze our government.

Based on the idea that laws have “piled up like sediment in the harbor,” paralyzing our public servants, and on his truism, “Only real people, not rules, make things happen,” Howard proposes three new principles for modern government:

1) A spring-cleaning on all law with budgetary implications. A law does not become one of the 10 Commandments because some dead people passed it. He also proposes an “Omnibus Sunset Law” under which all laws with budgetary implications automatically expire after 10-20 years.

2) Laws should be radically simplified. Replace 95% of the 100,000,000 words of binding federal law, all the details, with individual responsibility. Allow public servants to use their judgment. Laws are to set goals, general principles, and allocate budgets and to determine who is responsible if the goals are not met.

3) Public employees have to be accountable. There is no need for minutia in law if people are held accountable if they do a bad job. That means they have to be fire-able.

On playgrounds:

“There is nothing left in playgrounds for a kid over the age of 4. Nothing. Seesaws, jungle-gyms, climbing ropes…merry-go-rounds are abandoned. There are a few diving boards left, but not many. Not very many high boards. Why’s that? Because they all involve not just the risk, but the certainty that something might go wrong. They also happen to attract kids to the playground so they don’t get fat and die of obesity. They also happen to teach kids how to take responsibility for themselves, and to be athletic. These risks are vital for  for child development, which the American Academy of Pediatrics and all kinds of other boring people would write books about, but we don’t have a legal system that allows kids to take the ordinary risks of childhood. It’s lunacy. ….The range of exploration of a 9-year-old in America has declined by over 90% since 1970. Kids are not allowed to leave home by themselves. And that ability to wander around the neighborhood, to explore the creek, all that sort of thing is absolutely vital.”

I listened to the new seminar from The Long Now Foundation today, by Beth Noveck. (You should listen to the Long Now Seminars, too, by the way. They are a series of great lectures by really smart people applying long-term thinking to their area of expertise. Find them here.) She is Obama’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government. Her lecture is called “Transparent Government.” It’s not nearly the best of the series, but I was interested in what she was saying about what some private companies are doing with the data that is now available about the operations of the government. She talked about Sunlight Foundation‘s coverage of the health care summit, how as each politician spoke, you could see who donated how much to their campaigns. I imagined video of the speakers, with subtitles laying out the relevant campaign contributions floating in front of their faces. I checked it out and it wasn’t like that. It was more like a chat that happened at the same time as the summit. Pretty cool, but probably too much work to catch on with the public.

But why can’t we have what I imagined? It seems like it could be automated. The data is available. We have face-recognition programs and voice-recognition programs. I wonder how it would change things if there was a cheap app that effortlessly outed any politician in real time like that, if a senator speaking about health care reform could be seen as a mouthpiece for insurance companies, based on the actual amount of money they’ve received. It would make politics more entertaining to watch, at the least. And probably creepier, too, but I am willing to make that trade-off.