Up the Down Staircase

By 2030, Vermont’s ability to govern had descended into entropy.

After decades studying, tinkering with, and deferring action on Vermont’s increasingly complex challenges, we came to understand we needed to reverse-engineer our systems of government.

The accelerating dysfunction in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches had become like a nude descending a staircase on which we endlessly studied one broken tread at a time, missing the fact that she led us nowhere.

Reverse-engineering focuses on developing a functional vision rather than fixing a broken system. Experienced people come together to explore and develop a vision for what could be rather than analyzing what’s broken. This focus removes the threat of change from the discussion and the distraction of debating dysfunction and why   ̶   do we patch this up or design and build a new one together?

Inspired by Vermont’s motto, we sought to preserve the equilibrium between the enterprise we bring to our personal wellbeing and that which we bring to the wellbeing of our communities.

First, in the executive branch, a diverse group of eight Vermont thinkers drafted a new job description for governor. The goal was to eliminate the traditional popularity contest and to discourage power- and influence-seekers. One page outlined the key characteristics of leadership: the capacity to elicit and listen carefully to diverse ideas, to encourage inclusive discussion, to derive consensus, to honor and record dissenting opinions, and articulate the consensus vision, and… oversee the change. The underlying ethos was service to the community rather than the self.

In the Legislative branch, it was agreed that an effective legislature must understand and address an array of complex systems challenges:

  1. Environment: a healthy and sustainable environment
  2. Healthcare: an affordable, accessible, and quality healthcare system
  3. Criminal Justice: a system focused on community policing, human investment, intervention, restorative justice, and secure reentry
  4. Food Systems: Agriculture, nutrition and a food system that appropriately rewards producers and precludes hunger
  5. Education: a life-long public education system that meets all learners where they are
  6. Housing: individual, family, communal housing infrastructure that shelters all regardless of income.
  7. Networks: cost-efficient energy generation / distribution and public broadband communication networks that are ubiquitous and affordable.
  8. Transportation: a ubiquitous and environmentally responsible public transportation system that accommodates Vermont’s rural nature.
  9. Taxation and Regulation: A business, banking, and consumer protection regulatory system and tax code that ensures fiscal responsibility, consumer security, and manages a fair distribution of wealth.

In 2032, the bicameral legislature was made one and reduced by half from 180 members to 90. The old legislative committee structure was replaced by the nine chambers above, each with ten specialist legislators and a chair elected by the chamber members. Candidates then campaigned in their communities for a specific chamber seat based on their leadership credentials and professional experience. The administrative cost of legislation was considerably reduced and the savings were invested in a more robust legislative support resource, merging the Office of Legislative Council and Joint Fiscal into the Legislative Research Council which now maintains a network of diverse experts and academics in a variety of fields that can be called on to assist individual chambers exploring existing solutions deployed in similar conditions.

Abandoning the Old Testament model of punishment and atonement but safeguarding the goal of public safety, the judicial branch generated a new mission, values statement, and list of desired outcomes. They boosted funding for and deployment of restorative justice in all communities. And, working with the Legislature’s criminal justice chamber to ensure consistency, after a trial-by-jury of one’s peers, the new model added a new judicial requirement  — a required professional evaluation to determine whether a defendant’s alleged crime resulted from poverty, physical or mental illness, substance abuse, gambling, addiction or the intergenerational transfer of trauma. If any of these latter causes were determined to be the genesis of the alleged crime, treatment replaced judicial process and incarceration. In time, the new streamlined system eliminated the hearing backlog in the judiciary but placed enhanced pressure on social services.

This new architecture of government took some getting used to. But it succeeded in significantly lowering government costs, deploying functional solutions, and improving societal outcomes. It also brought to light additional opportunities for improvement.

Some extra-governmental initiatives emerged from our redesigned government process:

We now tax consumer packaging, reducing the flow of trash into recycling and landfills.

We removed primary care from large hospital systems and placed it in communities where it’s more accessible and affordable. Early interventional treatment lowered the cost and complexity of treating advanced disease.

We developed new regulation that reduces pharmaceutical addiction, lowers the cost of prescription drugs, eliminates government-sponsored gambling, adds additional taxes to tobacco and vaping, alcohol, and junk foods that contain more than seven percent sugar.

We shifted government investments in commodity dairy and agriculture to local and family-food systems and banned most soil additives other than natural fertilizers, propelling national interest in Vermont food systems and products.

Public education now begins at six-months and was re-engineered to subsume “child care.” We institutionalized life-long learning. Mandatory education is now only from age four to age 16.

Given Vermont’s rapidly aging population, public investments now fund the development of communal housing with centralized library, dining and communal activity spaces such as gardening, arts performance spaces, and exercise.

And finally in 2049, broadband became a guaranteed right.

With federal assistance, we deployed a system of single-car automated light rail between urban areas, van transport in rural areas, and online ride-sharing coordination, reducing our dependence on automobiles.

We agreed on a targeted Gini coefficient measuring the disparity of wealth and income to better inform tax policy and imposed a 2% tax on incomes over $500,000 and a 3% tax on incomes of $1M or more. A 1% tax on personal assets in excess of $3M is also levied.

We developed a code of consumer rights and remedies for the taxation and regulation chamber’s approval, reducing local junk fees, undisclosed charges, online scams, and offering streamlined redress against offenders.

The principal discovery emerging from our redesign is the certainty that moving Vermont’s social and economic investments upstream into education, prevention, and early intervention radically reduced the costs of remediation, repair and restoration that had plagued Vermont government operations for generations.

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