Between the Lines
In the spring, members of Congress set off to fly home for a holiday—and ran into mammoth lines at the airports. Why were things so bad? Because of airport furloughs caused by the “sequester.” Critics warned that the sequester would cause hardship throughout the country, but congress-folk didn’t care—until they had to share in the pain. When they discovered that the sequester was eating into their vacation time, they rushed back to the Capitol and passed a law restoring funding to airports, working so fast that part of the bill was handwritten.
Congress, it turns out, isn’t paralyzed. It’s just not motivated. In this spirit, there’s one simple way to get our do-nothing legislators off the dime: have them eat their own dog food.
In the software world, “dogfooding” is when programmers force themselves to use their own products, day in and day out. Microsoft coders invented the term in the 1980s, and the practice spread. Dogfooding works because when you’re forced to live with your own code, you quickly diagnose problems—and how to solve them.
Consider the case of my friend Fred Benenson, a data engineer at Kickstarter. Like many employees there, Benenson runs his own Kickstarter campaigns, including one last year for T-shirts celebrating the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act. Shipping 235 shirts turns out to be a hassle. People mistype their addresses, and zip codes beginning with a zero get mangled by spreadsheets. When you’re printing $370 worth of postage, these errors can be costly. Since Benenson had experienced the problem himself, he could help solve it. Kickstarter now uses an address-validation service that fixes typos and prompts users to verify zip codes.
In the world of politics, the people who make policy too often don’t encounter the problems of everyday people. They don’t eat their own dog food. They’re covered by extremely cheap, well-run federal insurance plans. (And—bonus!—they have onsite doctors at work.) Nearly half of all senators send their kids to private schools, a rate four times higher than the national average. They have pensions worth, on average, nearly double those in the private sector.
What makes dogfooding so useful a political construct is that, at heart, it’s a conservative practice. It’s not ripping up your code and starting fresh. “The epiphanies are not big ones—they’re usually lots and lots of small ones,” says Joel Spolsky, cofounder of Fog Creek software and CEO of Stack Exchange.
Big systems are complex, and so are the ways people use them, so you need to proceed with caution. This is precisely the sort of attitude you want to take in fixing policy.
I’m being idealistic here. I have no idea how you’d persuade Washington to eat its own dog food and live among the plebes. Nor do I want to push this metaphor too far; legislating is complex, and the reasons for congressional dysfunction are legion, with big money topping the list. But if, as Lawrence Lessig says, “code is law,” it’s worth thinking about the reverse proposition: you can think of law as a type of code, the instruction set for how we live. If the people in Washington were forced to use the software, maybe they’d see the bugs.•