Campaign Finance and the Systems Engineer

As is the case with many things in life, there is a fundamental, value-adding perspective that the systems engineer can bring to the discussion of campaign finance. While much of the popular discourse on this subject is not all that illuminating, systems engineers are positioned to add insight to the analysis of this important and timely topic.  [more]

At this point, a word of caution and disclaimer is warranted. If you are wading into this article in the hopes that you will uncover some substantive discussion of the partisan merits of who wins and loses in the current U.S. system and what should be done to further a particular cause, you have been misled. Although I have definite opinions concerning the political questions here (just ask anyone who knows me more than casually), it is not my intent to further those in this discussion. My goal is to point out that systems engineers can offer a uniquely useful framework for considering the issues and bring light to a topic that is too often shrouded in the darkness of misunderstanding.

The ideal behind the structure

To begin to see how the problem relates to systems engineering, consider the ideal behind the structure and operation of elections. Our elected officials are supposed to help us arrive at solutions to our socio-economic and political problems. The idea of elections is that candidates identify important issues and put forward platforms that offer solutions to those issues. In this ideal world an informed electorate makes judgments regarding which candidates offer the best thinking in attacking our problems and elects them to implement their solutions. The candidates propose to deliver a legislative product that implements those solutions.

Even in ideal conditions it is unlikely that any one elected official would be able to implement his or her solutions as presented. There are others involved in the socio-political system, so compromise and revision are necessary and a positive tempering influence. But in the main, the views endorsed by the electorate should drive the implementation of policy.

A broken system

It is clear from all sides of the political arena that this ideal is broken beyond the expected give and take of compromise and complexity. Most candidates and voters are decrying a system that is broken and unresponsive. The interests of the electorate are regarded as unfulfilled if not outright ignored. Neither “side” is satisfied, and the favorability ratings of our Congress are reflective of almost universal disapproval.

So where does systems engineering enter the stage with a helpful perspective? We know from our practice that the requirements levied on the system drive the behavior to produce the desired outcome from the system. In this case the system (the legislative process) behaves in ways that produce the legislative product. The system is then evaluated in terms of that behavior as against the needs. The validation aspect of the evaluation asks if the system is built to deliver behavior that truly reflects the stakeholders’ needs.

It is precisely here that the electoral stakeholders are giving the system a failing grade. The legislative product is not reflective of the requirements on which the voters based their ballots. The legislators seem to be acting on other requirements.

What requirements are driving behavior?

Systems engineers would know at this point that the likely culprit lies in the composition of the actual requirements. Theoretically the requirements are those imposed by the system charter (constitution, laws, etc.) and the will of the electorate. Obviously the system is working to a different set of requirements than those of the voters. The system of referenda (re-election campaigns) is supposed to provide a check against this, but even there it is pretty clear that the expressed views of the electorate are not driving the behavior.

There may be a disconnect between the expression of intent in the platform with which the candidate sought to secure the voters’ support and the actions of the legislator once elected. This is a common systems design problem resulting from an inability of the system element (the candidate) to perform as specified in an unrealistic campaign promise – saying whatever will get them elected – or from a failure of the element to perform once put in place. The systems engineer knows that the remedy for this is to replace the particular part.

Often, the prime suspects in non-conformity with the will of the electorate are the self-interests of the office holders. Instead of maximizing the interests of the voters, some legislators act in their own interests. This may or may not be so on a case-by-case basis, but a subtler form of it may provide the clues to a more widespread temptation. Legislators may be tempted to look first to their own prospects for re-election before considering the voters’ agenda.

Invisible requirements: the role of large money

In today’s highly competitive and expensive election environment, large amounts of money are necessary to fuel a campaign. This is most easily and efficiently raised in large chunks. But large donors tend to view sizeable contributions as investments in their own interests and look for legislative outcomes in return for their largesse. Their expectations become a de facto set of requirements to which the candidate must work or lose their support next time around. These requirements may supersede those of the ordinary voters.

Exacerbating the problem of additional or substitute requirements from donors is the ability for candidates from every party to conceal the source and size of contributions. This means that voters not only lose some (or all) of their ability to influence the legislative product to be produced by their representatives, but they also become blind to the probable outcomes of influences they can’t measure or even see.

Systems engineers understand the importance of clear, well-understood requirements that are visible to all stakeholders. Unclear or hidden requirements leave stakeholders without the ability to anticipate, much less influence, the outcomes of the system – in this case the legislative process. If parts of the system (legislators) insist on substituting their own selfish interests for the requirements of their constituencies, then they must be removed from the system by the voters. The voters also need to see that the system is set up to prevent interveners (contributors) from introducing extraneous requirements that thwart the intent of the real customers – the voters themselves. That is the wisdom and experience that systems engineers can bring to our common table. In order for our system to work, we must get a handle on the requirements process and restore the control to the customer for whom our government was designed to operate. And that is a problem for a systems engineer.

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