Catherine Wilson/New America

What Our Democracy Needs to Know

A Future Tense event recap.

What does the weather app on your phone have to do with an effective democracy? A lot, according to the experts Future Tense gathered in Washington on Feb. 8 for the event “What Our Democracy Needs to Know.” Your phone’s weather app demonstrates how we rely on government services for data that drive our economy and policy decisions (not to mention weekend plans). But our speakers contend that these very institutions are under threat. According to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of American University, we need to protect the entities that provide lawmakers factual analysis and aggregate data, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Without them, it’s impossible for lawmakers to step in and create new policy and move quickly on pressing issues, she argued.

In one example of how technology has become crucial to democratic institutions, the speakers discussed how the 2020 census, which will be conducted digitally for the first time, could both keep up with the private sector and offer meaningful data to government leaders. An accurate Census is critical for everything from our economy to our educational systems.


“Trend lines are a critical component of actually a functioning democracy,” said Ken Prewitt, Carnegie professor of public affairs and former vice president for Global Centers* at Columbia University and a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau. “A [functioning] democracy has to have an information platform.”

But speakers also emphasized that big data alone won’t save us. Rather, protecting our democracy will require an ability to correctly analyze that data and to communicate it effectively to the public. Burwell discussed how, during her time as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, she and her staff relied on public health centers and social media to raise awareness of outbreaks such as Zika and Ebola. In terms of building public trust, speakers also pointed to institutions like museums and universities as sources of knowledge. Lorelei Kelly, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, called on them to be “public intermediaries” in times of distrust.

But how can we overcome the political tensions that create distrust in expertise and knowledge both from citizens and lawmakers?

“We need a language more sensitive to findings from the history, sociology, and politics of knowledge that truth in the public domain is not simply out there, ready to be pulled into service like the magician’s rabbit from a hat,” Sheila Jasanoff, founder and director of the program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote in a related piece recently republished on Future Tense.

Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of policy and technology at New America, pointed out that data can help lawmakers overcome ideological biases. She cited an instance during her time in the Obama administration, where she served first as director of intergovernmental affairs and later as director of the Domestic Policy Council, where her team was examining the movement to “ban the box”—that is, banning questions about criminal records during job interviews and applications. Though it was a policy many Democrats supported, she and her team had to consider data that went against their assumptions and suggested that the approach could actually lead to more discrimination.


“It’s a question we actually don’t know the answer to yet. And it’s important not to forge ahead with a policy as a result of ideology or pressure or whatever it is in the absence of information about whether or not your theory of the case is actually true,” said Muñoz. “Being willing to explore whether or not your theory of the case is true is tremendously important if the policy making is going to be effective.”

But a crisis of expertise and how it’s employed in government has always been a tension in American democracy. Jasanoff argued that America defaults to a “truth or bust” skepticism that allows decision makers to define that truth by their own ideological leanings. She noted that that is markedly different from Western Europe, where sentiments against policy issues like abortion and climate change exist but have less influence on policy. Arthur Daemmrich, director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution, suggested that the ability of citizens to get more data from a variety of sources has only hastened the “crisis of expertise.”

There was disagreement among panelists as to how to rebuild trust in expertise, though many pointed to rebuilding the knowledge infrastructure in Congress as an important step—especially when 2018 midterm elections will bring significant turnover in institutional knowledge, as Kelly pointed out.

“The only thing that I think is going to be able to fix this problem is a real love for the institutions and going back to basics and rebuilding the shared knowledge system that was eliminated over the last 20 years,” said Kelly. For instance, the Congressional Research Office has seen significant downsizing in the past two decades, and the Office of Technology Assessment, established in 1972, was infamously shutdown in 1995. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, which has also seen cuts since Donald Trump took office, still lacks a director.


There’s also a need to create a clearer pathway between technology and Capitol Hill, something speaker Travis Moore is leading as the director of Tech Congress, a fellowship program that places technologists in congressional offices.

“One thing that I think we need in terms of keeping government up to speed is we need to at least get to a place where government knows what it doesn’t know,” said Moore.

*Correction, Feb. 28, 2018: This piece originally misstated that Ken Prewitt is the vice president for Global Centers at Columbia University. He is the former vice president.

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