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What’s wrong with the systems we rely on?

Complexity, rigidity, ill-defined goals and patchwork “solutions” all serve to make many of the systems we interact with inefficient, hard to use and bad at meeting our needs.

A Rube Goldberg machine.

If you have ever tried to get help from an insurance company or an airline, you’ve probably asked yourself how we ended up like this. And if you’re like me and you’ve spent time looking into government programs and policies, you’ve surely wondered the same. How did we get to a point where the systems we rely on, like health care, are mind-bogglingly complicated and yet seemingly designed to do exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to do? How did we create a world where just trying to navigate basic necessities, like staying healthy or paying taxes, could make Kafka weep?

That’s a hard question to answer. But looking around at America, I have some thoughts. To fix what’s broken in our society, figuring out what’s wrong with our systems is a good starting point.

One problem is that some systems aren’t designed to be modified. They are created wholesale, without the ability to change and adapt. Think of the classic American suburb: precisely plotted, often identical houses, very few mixed-use neighborhoods, buildings that are hard to repurpose, with no easy way to adapt to new needs (in contrast to traditional small towns and cities that evolved and grew over time). As Strong Towns’ Charles Marohn writes, “there is no thought that the neighborhood will ever grow into anything more than a collection of single family homes.” The suburbs met the desires of a particular moment, and many people still enjoy living in them, but there are a multitude of ways they don’t meet the needs of this moment. These kinds of systems are built with a set of fixed ideas of how things should be. They are based on current needs rather than on a set of principles. They are built “finished,” and can’t be changed over time as conditions change or knowledge is gained about how to do things better.

Oftentimes, even somewhat rigid systems can be modified, but it’s usually not pretty. Rather than being improved and adapted, these systems accumulate workarounds and patches until they become too complex to use … or even understand. Look at the U.S. tax system, which has tens of thousands of pages and millions of words of provisions, exceptions, exemptions and rules. The complexity of the tax system has spawned an entire industry of experts whose job it is to reduce the pain felt by average people – an industry that now has such a big stake in keeping the system complex that they spend millions of dollars every year lobbying to prevent simplification

Or take our health care system, which forces us to think about co-pays, deductibles, coinsurance, premiums, in- and out-of-network providers, referrals and more instead of just getting the help we need – and which has added so much bureaucracy, oversight and non-care related requirements that doctors and nurses often feel they can’t put their patients’ best interests first, and are becoming depressed, exhausted and enraged.  

And then there’s the U.S. government. As Professor Steven Teles of Johns Hopkins University writes, “For any particular problem we have arrived at the most gerry-rigged [sic], opaque and complicated response … America has chosen more indirect and incoherent policy mechanisms than any comparable country.” American democracy was designed to be slow and measured, but today’s government is at a near standstill, allowing too many separate entities simultaneous and competing influence over many aspects of governing and delegating a huge amount of the actual work of governing to consultants and contractors. This “kludgification” of U.S. government has resulted in problems with everything from taxes and health care to education, and programs and policies designed to protect people with disabilities

In addition to being hopelessly complex, many U.S. systems share another problem: their purpose is no longer clear. Often, systems designed to do one thing are repurposed to do other things too: The tax system, for example, has become a vehicle to enact policy priorities because Congress struggles to come together to pass laws to address policy goals more directly. 

The consequences of rigid or overly complex systems, and those without clear goals, are real and harmful. The American model of suburbs, for example, relies on car dependency, which is dangerous and makes people unhappy. The U.S. tax system wastes billions of hours and hundreds of billions of dollars every year, not to mention inducing stress and putting people in legal trouble for being unable to comply with a broken system. The health care industry has ballooned into a giant administrative nightmare, one that costs us more and delivers worse outcomes than systems in peer countries. And the U.S. government has become less than responsive to the will of the people it represents, instead bowing to special interests.

These kinds of problems arise because we don’t imagine the ways in which a system might need to change in the future, because we don’t clearly define the goals and principles of the system, or because we don’t implement the system in ways that match the goals and principles we set. The first issue gave us suburbia, with low-density, single-use zoning forcing car dependency and shutting out the possibility of organic change. The second gave us the tax system, which is used for a huge variety of policy purposes it isn’t well suited to and unsuccessfully tries to accomplish competing priorities at the same time (e.g., giving out tax credits for electric vehicles while continuing to provide enormous tax breaks and other financial benefits to the fossil fuel industry). The third gave us U.S. health care, which I assume can be agreed is supposed to keep us healthy, but instead grows (like weeds) administrators and businesses that don’t provide actual care, adds stress and confusion to our lives and fails millions at the task of preserving health and quality of life.

To make matters worse, once we build sufficiently complex systems, they tend to take on a life of their own. We assume that systems of such complexity are impossible to change – “that’s just the way things are,” we say. And when the beneficiaries of complexity work actively to ensure its continuation, the problem is magnified.

So, do we need to rewrite the tax code or rebuild the health care system? Well … probably yes. But not until we have clearly articulated the goals we are looking to achieve and the principles that will guide us, which will require reaching some form of collective consensus; real progress needs buy-in from everyone. My own thoughts? Communities and their transportation systems should put health, safety, happiness and the environment first. The tax code should be simple and transparent and, if it must be used to shape behavior, should promote only those things that are good for society. Health care should be simple, accessible and organized around keeping people physically and mentally healthy. And the government should be responsive to the needs and will of the public, not to special interests or money.

Building capable, resilient systems requires both thoughtful design and trial-and-error, both broadscale public engagement and a willingness by that public to accept some amount of failure as the price of learning what works. Change must be a feature, not a bug. 

It’s hard to start over, hard to imagine something from the beginning, hard to design something that doesn’t exist. That’s why successful revolutionaries, founders, inventors and artists are celebrated. As a species, we have so much more knowledge, more analytical and investigative power, more resources and more advanced technology than we’ve ever had before. By working to identify the real problems in our systems, and build consensus on what our real needs and principles are, with the resources at our disposal we as a society can transcend rigidity, complexity and vagueness … and make everyone’s lives better. We just need the will.

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Bryn Huxley-Reicher

Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Bryn Huxley-Reicher is a policy analyst at Frontier Group focusing on issues related to clean energy and the new economy. He has a BA in applied mathematics focused in earth and planetary sciences from Harvard University.

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