180° Shift: Mapping the Policy Genome


  • Marci Harris

    Marci Harris


Marci Harris
Chief Executive Officer, POPVOX

Harris: I’m Marci Harris, co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, and I’m not going to talk about POPVOX. I’m going to talk about a challenge to this group and ask you, “What would you do if for the day you were put in charge of the federal government?” A $3.5 trillion budget, 500,000 physical buildings, 2.5 million civilian employees. You would say, “Show me the data,” and you would get a lot of PDFs. And you would find a lot of really weird things, like a crazy conversion rate in the value of a statistical life, if you happen to be talking about the EPA versus the DOT versus OSHA. And this, in a time when we can measure and pinpoint and see cause and effect more than ever before in human history, this is how we govern.

We do this because of the way we allocate our resources and our priorities. You may have noticed that a lot of money was just recently spent in the congressional midterms. Now, when those members get to Congress they’re going to have considerably fewer resources to use when it comes to governing. That’s the difference or the focus we put on politics versus policy, electing versus governing. It would be like a company spending all of its money on marketing and very little on R&D and product development. But that’s where we are today.

I love this quote from DJ Patil, a nice bit of Silicon Valley wisdom: “If you can’t measure it you can’t fix it.” And for the longest time the U.S. Government has just been too big to measure, and some would say too big to fix, but that’s not the case anymore. We are 10 years into what is known as the open data movement, and the data exists. There are datasets out there left and right on the White House webpage. There are nonprofit organizations like the Sunlight Foundation who’ve been doing brilliant work to pull these datasets together. Now it’s time for something like what we just heard about—an open, collaborative, public, private, commercial academic movement to sequence the human genome that made it possible for advances there to benefit humanity. It’s time for something like that for government.

So this is a call and a challenge and an opportunity to all get on board with the idea of mapping the policy genome, so that we can do things like we do with weather, when models use NOAA data to measure where the storm is going to go, and then as soon as the storm passes through we go back and we calibrate the model so that we learn and get smarter every time. Just as a startup has found—some of you recognize waterfall versus agile—that using data to find out how you’re going along the development cycle and to avoid the big fail of getting to the end and not having tested along the way, so data can transform the way that we govern—right now we legislate and implement in waterfall—and along the way we can start with a fact-based assessment of where we are, a common understanding of where we want to go, and eventually revolutionize our governing practices with a fact-based governing model that contributes and saves the health of our democracy.

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