How Might We Improve Political Representation?

Having started from a very broad question the main challenge was finding the right balance of breadth and specificity for the HMW statement. To that end I went through the exercise and came up with a number of questions that I felt tackled both very specific and more general parts of the larger problem, e.g.:

HMW make politics seem more consequential?

HMW make civic participation and political engagement more fun?

HMW make voters focus on more relevant issues in elections?

HMW improve government transparency while remaining within the attention span or regular citizens?

HMW make government more interactive without leading to chaos?


I chose one that I felt got to the core of two of the critical “demand-side” and “supply-side” issues of the problem:

HMW create incentives to organically improve the average level of political discourse


10 Divergent Ideas

  1. Create technological tools to better aggregate and summarize politically relevant news and data for users
  2. Regulate social platforms after their user base crosses a certain threshold and develop guidelines on how they must report and control the ways in which they are influencing their users
  3. Create a publicly funded alternate platform that serves the civic roles of social media
  4. Encourage cultural shift in tech companies to think longer term (not over-optimize short-term metrics) and to adapt quickly once harm of certain actions is clear
  5. Create an election day holiday weekend (similar to Deliberation Day proposed by James Fishkin) to encourage thoughtful and unhindered political participation
  6. Start automatic voter registration and compulsory voting to force improvement in turnout and reduce impact of suppression tactics
  7. Make basic online literacy and fraud detection part of core secondary school curriculum
  8. Create better technological tools to flag and trace low-quality or misleading content
  9. Create new class of technological methods to track user engagement to remove incentives for “click-bait” and high-engagement false content.
  10. Invest in community based engagement to reduce political polarization and re-establish bipartisan trust in the political process

Cross-Cultural Comparisons

In order to test some basic assumptions on the systems of political representation and get a deeper understanding of the role of “culture” in democracy I utilized IDEO’s ‘Cross-Cultural Comparisons’ framework.

I engaged a friend, that had lived in the US briefly, but had only ever voted in elections in another country (Pakistan) to try, and draw out similarities and differences in the democratic systems that ostensibly share the same overarching ideals.

The most recent national election in Pakistan was held only a few months ago in July. My friend took part as both a voter and an independent observer at a polling station on behalf of a non-profit organization.


Some core functional differences were the most immediately obvious and had a direct impact on the cultural “performance” of elections. The two most prominent factors that contributed to this were automatic voter registration and election day being a declared national holiday.

The fact that election day is a holiday and effectively open to all adults who decide to show up, helps create a festive, carnival-like atmosphere at most polling locations. Many families or groups of friends come to polling stations together, driven by a mix of civic responsibility and the chance to have a fun day out. Street vendors set up shop to serve refreshments close by as people line up and even political parties themselves take advantage of this atmosphere. While not allowed inside polling location, many parties set up booths outside to serve refreshments of their own, get some last-minute campaigning in and distribute party SWAG.

Another side of the equation is the differing level of trust in the system. By and large, election officers and the process of tabulating votes is not considered to be easily corruptible in the US (although the recent midterms might hint at the beginnings of this assumption no longer being considered sacrosanct). In Pakistan, however, the losing party questioning the validity of the elections and accusing the winning party of “rigging” is an enduring tradition in of itself.

To this end, each polling booth has a strong presence of official, independent and party affiliated observers that attempt to ensure that nothing suspect takes place. This also includes the legally mandated presence of military personnel for security and monitoring.

In terms of substantive differences there appears to far less emphasis on ideological voting than in the US. Although the parliamentary system means the leader of each party is not on every ballot, most votes represent preferences for party leadership. However, most major parties do not truly campaign on the basis of valued based “liberal” or “conservative” agendas comparable to the US. Voting decisions and political public discourse is tied less to ideological positions, and more to practical, policy or reputational considerations (with some exceptions).


Elections in Pakistan are also, in the quite literal sense, reliant on symbols to communicate meaning. The ballot is populated with both the names of each candidate and a symbol that represents their political party.

The party symbol is one of the most critical, and unifying, aspects of political messaging. It often represents the way a party would like to be identified. The previous incumbent party, the PML-N, for instance, uses the symbol of a tiger. The PTI, the winner of the current election and party of the former cricket legend Imran Khan, uses a cricket bat. The symbols are also deeply embedded into party rhetoric and material, such as banners and advertisements. For instance, the third major party, the PPP-P, that uses an arrow as its symbol, has used an original theme song at its rallies for the last 30 years that loosely translates to “an arrow to the heart”.

One of the most universal symbols circulating around election time is the “inked thumb”. Votes are registered by inking a thumb impression on a form, marking the thumbnail with a permanent marker, and then stamping a name and party symbol on a ballot. The inked thumb acts as a symbol of the act of voting and elections in general, and plays the role of a very visceral “I Voted” sticker. In the age of social media, election day sees a wave of people sharing pictures of their inked or marked thumb one they’ve voted.


Another interesting aspect of this elections was the role of technology. The government had announced the use of a new live vote tabulation system for this election that would display results live as they came in from each polling station. However, the system crashed midway through election day and results stopped being reported for several hours. This fueled a flurry of conspiracy theories that the results were being manipulated. This episode, and the subsequent reaction demonstrated how technology can often reduce trust, rather than increase it, if it is perceived to be too much of a black box, which is important to keep in mind when designing any solution.

Modernizing Political Representation

Political Representation is the pillar upon which democracy rests.

However, many take the effective implementation of this ideal for granted. The systems that allow citizens to choose their representatives, and then hold them accountable as they govern, are often conflated directly with the ideals that they are attempting to approximate. In reality, the systems almost exclusively dictate the very definition of the “representation” they create. Although some high-profile issues, such as the electoral college and voter suppression, have brought this issue into the mainstream in recent times in the US, the discussion remains extremely superficial. Far more fundamental assumptions that determine how our electoral and governance systems work are left unchallenged and dealt, instead, with almost divine deference.

The systems of today were created by previous generations of policy makers attempting to find an appropriate balance between practicality and idealism. They were designed specifically to work around the constraints, and opportunities, presented by the technology of the time. Everything from one vote per arbitrary term length, to the need to choose from candidates in voters’ geographic proximity, were put in place to respect realistic expectations of, among other factors, communication and transportation. The world is unrecognizable from the time many of the world’s current democratic infrastructure was first designed, but most of those traditions, and in-built compromises, remain.

I am hoping to find ways in which technology can break through some of these assumptions and modernize and improve political representation. On a high level, there are three main goals.

I aim to develop proposals to help make political representation:

  1. more representative (by more effectively representing complex political preferences)
  2. more accountable and transparent (through improved exchange of information)
  3. more dynamic (through faster systems of aggregating and reacting to citizen participation)

Existing academic or policy research work in this space, that specifically explores radical changes to core democratic systems, is surprisingly sparse. Most of the recent focus has been on developing the idea of “government-as-a-platform”.  A forward-looking state that can be used as a potential real-world model, is that of Estonia. Their well established e-Estonia initiative already implements ambitious solutions such as remote online voting through mobile apps, among others.

A first draft of the ecosystem map can be found at the following link:

Unhacking Digital Government

Modernizing and digitizing government is not a new idea. But while the pace of innovation and technological disruption has left the larger world unrecognizable, government and politics have been extremely slow to change. The inherent complexity of the problems to be solved, and built-in systemic inertia, have meant that any major changes in how the government functions have been difficult, if not impossible.

This has left many citizens, and would-be solution designers, frustrated. Many naturally turn to blaming the backwardness and anachronistic attitudes of public officials. By the same token, many in government are annoyed by the arrogance and naivety of those who chose to “fix” government without appreciating its unique structural and social constraints.

Bridging this disconnect in some way is critical in paving the way for holistic solutions that can genuinely improve governance and political representation, while also having a realistic chance of convincing relevant stakeholders of their value and feasibility.

Our goal is to facilitate this process and create a breeding ground for innovative solutions through which digital technologies can improve government and political representation.


Design Principles

Empathy: Good problem solving must start with having respect and an understanding of the constraints of all stakeholders affected by the problem.

Representation: Inclusive solutions that serve the diverse needs of all citizens are only possible if they are represented and heard at all stages of the solution design.

Equity: Representation is only useful if it is also converted into genuinely equitable and just solutions and outcomes.

Accountability: Decisions made in the design process could have significant consequences for large segments of the population. Designers will need to be comfortable and willing to take ownership of that responsibility.

Action: Adherence to all the above principles risks paralyzing the impulse to act. This must be tempered by the recognition that, eventually, progress is only possible through action.


Designing an Un-Hackathon

One of the fundamental problems we are trying to solve for is the inability of two important stakeholders, the government and digital solution designers, to understand the constraints under which the other operates.

“Hackers” assume that government simply does not act as it is either too incompetent, out of touch, or inadequately incentivized. But in their reading of the problem they often do not have an eye for the complexities and weight of political decision making. Given the balancing act between different constituents and affected parties, there are sometimes good reasons behind slow and careful consideration of even minor changes.

Similarly, governments often fail to understand the a technological solution as an entity in of itself. Missteps such as the initial roll-out of the website, that failed to adequately account for the technical challenges of implementing something on that scale, show that there is some way to go before policy and technology can be aligned seamlessly. It is not possible to make a policy and assume the technology will simply follow. The design process needs to start much earlier to ensure successful outcomes.

Given our main objectives are to encourage innovative solutions and help both parties unlearn some of their assumptions and approaches, the event we are proposing is an “Unhackathon”.

We will invite government representatives (elected or nominated officials), government employees, and any citizens interested in making digital solutions to improve the functioning of the government.

At the two-day event, we will reverse the roles of the participants based on their experience and run two parallel “constrained hackathons”.

On the first day, government officials will be presented with a number of technical restrictions, such as scale capacity and cost of maintenance, and will have to design purely technical solutions to solve a problem. This will force them to understand the trade-offs that must be made when creating digital solutions. But more importantly, it will also force them to recognize how design decisions are not neutral, and simple things like user-interface cues can significantly alter the practical implementation of an idea.

The other half of the event will force the hackers to come up with purely legislative or policy solutions for some of the inefficiencies they hope to remove. Their constraints will include existing laws, necessary political compromises and constituent expectations. This should help them gain an understanding of the complexities of political decision making, and the often unseen stakeholders that all changes in government impact.

Each of these two sides will have moderators that will communicate the constraints at the start of the session and will also confirm if all presented solutions satisfy the requirements.

The second day will have the two teams merging and taking their learnings to make more holistic solutions. At the conclusion of the second day all of the ideas will be judged on the basis of how well they meet the core principles stated above.

Politics, the Gig Economy and Education

1. Political Representation

Government, and political representation in particular, are long overdue for modernization. Most of the systems in place for electing representatives are holdovers from the technological limitations of centuries past. For instance, the fact that individuals are restricted to choosing candidates for national legislatures from their geographical vicinity, rather than those that represent their views best, made sense when it was only realistic to run and consume local political campaigns. But with the advent of mass media and the internet, this has not been the case for the better part of the last century.

Although technology can, and must, play an integral part in this modernization, there is no doubt that it must be done carefully. Technology is clearly not an inevitable force for good, as can be seen clearly with how it has been used recently as a force for mass manipulation and propagation of false information.

How can technology improve and modernize the systems of political representation?


There are a number of different intervention points through which both civic engagement and political representation can be “coded” into new systems. Digitizing elements of conventional voting or moving to more “dynamic” methods would fall on the more ambitious side of the spectrum. However, there is also great potential in building on existing digital platforms to reduce the information asymmetry present between candidates and citizens. This could take the form of better systems to aggregate campaign promises, policy performance and legislative voting records on one side and collect and summarize more accurate and timely information on users’ political preferences and priorities on the other.


The fundamental challenge for market induced change, when it comes to the government or public sphere, is to create systemic incentives for non-financial social goods. There is a clear need and desire for this to happen as citizens are gaining awareness of the level of control profit motivated private organizations are having on their political futures.

More generally, there is a need for people to accept, and develop, new models that shoulder the monetary burden of sustaining civic technology that provides public goods such as fact-checking and political accountability.


In this case, legislation is the most direct obstacle to change. Any attempts to change some of the foundational structural aspects of government are likely to be met with extreme resistance from law-makers and citizens alike.

In the absence of pressure from citizens this is unlikely to happen in the short term. What is more likely is for legislators to start taking a more proactive role in reigning in big tech companies whose reach gives them an outsized influential role in public life. These will include establishing adaptable, but clear laws on issues such as removing bias in algorithms and mandating transparency in policies and incentives.


As stated above, a push for more modern interpretations of the political system will require a movement from citizens demanding such changes. Awareness on the potential benefits and risks of new systems needs to be generated by pushing these discussions out into public discourse. Additionally, making civic engagement and informed citizenship an important aspect of culture could be an important normative step. Perceptions that government and political figures are unreachable and accountability is not feasible need to be challenged with the demonstration of how modern tools can aid (and ideally not impede) this process.

2. Labor Rights in the Gig Economy

There has been a dramatic surge in labor marketplaces that allow workers to offer services without being tied to traditional employers; the emergence of the so-called gig economy. The trend has called into question the sustainability of the traditional system of benefits provision, where employers provide and heavily subsidize critical benefits such as health insurance. Freelance employees have not immediately been able to find comparable alternatives. Additionally, while the flexible hours offered by such jobs are attractive to many, they also introduce a distinct element of uncertainty and precarity into wages and long-term employment. Many workers end up being pushed to work longer hours and earning less in net terms than they initially planned.

How can we ensure that the rights of freelance workers are protected in the face of rapid technology driven changes?


One element that is often ignored in this discussion is the impact of some of the design elements in the apps that power these platforms. An obsession to continually optimize and maximize efficiency has resulted in seemingly beneficial innovations such as dynamic pricing and instant scheduling. However, the psychological toll of the consequences of these choices is not studied or considered. Many Uber drivers, for instance, feel drawn into the “game” of following surge pricing and completing streaks even when it might mean working outside of the limits they set for themselves to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Buffers built-in to the apps that show a greater respect for human limitations and psychological impulses could go a long way in countering the harmful effects of these tendencies. Just because something can be optimized, doesn’t mean it should.


Markets can step in by providing innovative products that can more adequately replace the employer-centric solutions of the past. For instance, models for insurance provision that target individuals but offer them rates as part of pools and groups could help reduce some of the financial burden on freelance workers.


A number of proactive laws are needed to govern the impact of labor marketplaces and protect workers. These include clearly delineating the role of platforms for workers providing services using their product and extending some of the basic rights of traditional workers to apply to contractors and freelance workers.


Consumers need to recognize the human cost of their transactions. In many cases, there is a need for them to reflect on whether, regardless of its economic feasibility, there is a sustainable and/or humane way for them to get a service. Do we really need one-hour delivery if it will mean workers on minimum wage needing to be on their feet for 16 hours at a time?

On the other hand, many workers themselves need to be educated on the implications of the trade-offs they are making by going freelance.

3. Equitable Provision of Education

There have been a number of technological false dawns in education delivery and quality over the last few decades. Two of the fundamental challenges that still remain are improving the quality of teaching and reducing the inequality in access to educational resources.

How can we leverage technology to improve the quality and accessibility of education?


A number of improved hardware and software solutions are needed to ensure more successful interventions than those of the past, even though the “code” aspect was not the primary reason for their failure. One challenge to address is merging the benefits of instant access to high-quality online content with the need for in-person tutoring, especially for younger students. There is also a need to ensure, where needed, more resilient and sustainable hardware solutions.


The main issue to resolve, in developing and developed countries alike, is creating incentives that can attract and motivate high-quality teachers. This is by no means an easy problem, but it might be possible to provide new ways for teachers to supplement their main incomes (e.g. through some technologically enabled services and hopefully reduce the income gap with other professions. Other aspects of education that inflate costs and reduce accessibility, such as textbooks, could also be partially addressed through market forces.


Legislation and budgeting can ensure a more equitable distribution of funds for schools. The disparity in funding and education outcomes for schools based on the demographics of their neighborhoods is concerning to say the least. Finding creative ways to balance out funding where local taxes are falling short could be an important first step.


In order for there to be political momentum to address some of the inequality in education there must also be a perceptual shift in how education and life outcomes are viewed, especially in the United States. The belief that some notional demonstration “merit” can dictate, or be the primary factor responsible for success or failure is problematic when there is such gross disparity in starting positions, largely driven by availability and quality of educational resources. Changing that mindset could help ensure a greater appetite for spreading out educational funding and resources to create a more level playing field.

Measure for Measure

As a strategy consultant in the private sector for much of my (admittedly short) professional career, I have had limited opportunities to work on projects that explicitly aimed to effect large scale social change. However, technology played a central role in essentially all solutions that we ended up recommending to our clients. One project in particular resonated with a number of themes that we have already touched upon in this course.

A US telecommunications provider was looking to restructure the incentivization strategy for software developers working on internal (non-customer facing) projects. The leadership believed that existing metrics and KPIs were contributing to a bloated budget, with too much focus on “lines of code” productivity as opposed to high quality output.

This was a notoriously difficult issue, especially in cases where the software or technical maintenance provided had no direct revenue associated with it. How do you measure productivity, in dollar terms, for people working on maintaining intangible assets that support, but do not directly impact, other business functions? It was often only possible to attribute success or failure of projects well after they had been deployed, too late to include in ongoing performance reviews, assuming, of course, that they could somehow be traced to a team or individual in the first place.

The likely consequences of this project on the existing workforce were significant. Although ostensibly motivated by a desire to improve productivity in the short-term, the eventual cost-cutting implications were obvious. We knew that our recommendations would effectively decide which resources were seen as being “better” performing, and thus more essential than their peers.

From the onset we approached this problem as one of motivating desirable outcomes simply by aligning metrics with contributing actions. But more fundamentally, our search was driven by the emerging “opportunity” presented by the new paradigm of data generation and collection. There was a genuine sense that in the world of high tech and big data, we could now “measure” everything, and thus finding the right metric was not a technical challenge, but a logical one.

Although I was uneasy with our work on this project for reasons I could not quite articulate at the time, in hindsight there were two fundamental issues at play.

The first and most obvious issue is common to most consulting engagements. Is a small team of external observers, with a relatively one-dimensional view developed over the course of a few short months, the best positioned party to resolve such deep-seated, and consequential, structural issues? This is especially troubling given that consultants are most often incentivized to unearth existing problems rather than spend time understanding why things have come to be the way they are.

The second is a broader issue with the obsession of using technology to find “objective” representations of truth through metrics that can then be optimized, often in isolation, and devoid of their larger context.

Both these points represent some of the key problems that drive detrimental unintended social consequences from technological interventions, both in the private and public sphere. Self-professed serial problem-solvers (such as Shane Snow and virtually all consultants) believe that there is more value in modular solutions than in embracing and respecting context and complexity. Compounding this is the well documented tendency of human targets of metrics to attempt to game them to their advantage, often at the cost of the original overall goals and objectives.

The impact of such thinking is clear to see from small to large scale interventions. Some of the best examples of this context-free, metric-driven impact assessment methodology are in the world of international development, through organizations such as the UN and USAID. Eventually, if we are to avoid repeating mistakes from our past, the first step to correcting some of the inherent myopia in this form of solutionism will have to be a greater willingness to engage and investigate the impact of technological solutions on target populations more deeply and empathetically.

Searching for the Valley Beyond

Before starting my MBA at MIT Sloan last fall I worked as a strategy consultant exclusively serving technology and telecommunications clients. Although I flirted with an early career in non-profits and international development, working close to the technology industry was, in many ways, an inevitability for me.

As a hopeless technophile and unapologetic geek from before I can even remember, it was not long before my love for consuming and using technology was converted into a fascination for the powers behind the curtain. As I edged closer to the beginning of my professional life, I believed strongly that technology was quite possibly the single greatest multiplier of individual human effort, and thus the best path for creating lasting impact.

My time in consulting allowed me to keep close to ambitious technological solutions and their enablers, but it also soon became the source of a great internal struggle. As I reflected on the world that we (the consultants) and our clients (technology companies) were trying to build, it was difficult to escape some bitter truths.

As my wife (who conveniently happens to be pursuing a PhD on the impact of digital technologies on labor markets) is always quick to remind me, the Management Consulting industry has been a fundamental enabler of the short-sighted, modular, techno-solutionism that is at the core of this course. Consultants have historically taken a very narrow definition of operational and strategic efficiency; pursuing it as an end in itself with little regard for its eventual human cost.

The “objective” pursuit of metrics and optimization has allowed for a conscious disassociation of design choices from any eventual negative consequences. From the pursuit of better ad click-through rates at Facebook leading to lax data standards and manipulation, to Amazon and UPS’s use of draconian measures of productivity taking a significant toll on their employees’ psychological and physical well-being.

In addition, the push for “technology adoption” today is presented essentially as virtue (not much unlike the push for capitalism and free markets not too long ago). But for me, “technology adoption” is simply a term for developing and using more scientifically sophisticated ways of doing things. As an abstract concept it is effectively neutral; what differentiates the good from the bad is the nature of its implementation. But by talking about “technology” in this generalized way we force a categorization of people into being either techno-skeptics or techno-idealists. In reality, the critiques of most “skeptics” are rooted in the specific context and nuances of a specific implementation.

Engaging with these shades of cynicism, however, has not dampened my belief that technology can, and should be a positive change agent in the world. But it has helped me appreciate that the path to success is far more complicated than simply “making the best tech”. What problem you choose to solve (and how you formulate it) is often far more important than simply solving it.

Like many of my classmates, I too am looking for a path to the “valley beyond” through this course. I do not expect any easy answers or frameworks, but at the very least I hope to leave equipped with the ability to both articulate my concerns and evangelize the need for greater empathy and responsibility in technology design choices and decisions.