Those of us in Europe awoke to the news that the US electoral college have voted for Joe Biden as 46th President of the United States of America. Getting to this point has seemed (at least from the outside) to be a rather tortuous route, but from my understanding of how the US Constitution works, this is it: the process is complete and Joe Biden will be sworn in a President of the United States on a (probably very chilly) day next month, at the beginning of 2021. I have no intention of weighing the pros and cons of the candidates, nor even of examining the process (sometime labelled “arcane” by journalists”) by which US presidents are elected, but I do want to spend some time on the fact that there is a process, and thinking about how that works, and what supports it.
This is, first and foremost, a blog about IT security (though I have been known to post on a much wider range of issues from time to time), and so I unsurprisingly spend quite a lot of time discussing technology, but on this occasion I want to avoid doing that, as far as possible. If we look at the process for electing a US president, one of the most striking things about it, we might note, is the lack of technology. Yes, there are electronic voting machines to allow votes to be cast, yes, a myriad computers are deployed by psephologists to forecast the results, but the actual process is lacking in much that we would normally think of as technology.
We often fixate on technology, but if there is no process in place to get from point A to point B, then you can throw technology at it as much as you want, but you are still likely to fail. Those points may be getting from having no president-elect to having a new president, completing a transaction to buy a house or a paperclip, hiring a new CEO or sous-chef, moving from a set of requirements to a working software program, or literally getting from a point A on a map to point B – they all require a process.
What is a process? Google, courtesy of Oxford Languages, offers the definition: a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. This seems like a useful description, but in the contexts we’re describing, it is the fact that the actions or steps are defined which is important. In the world of computing, we might say that there is an algorithm to be followed to complete the process. This algorithm allows a variety of things, all of which are important:
- the writing down and codification of the process;
- the allocation of different people to different roles in the process;
- norms, rules, regulation and/or legislation to be created to ensure the correct following of the process;
- the application of technology to simplify, speed up or automate parts of the process.
I don’t want to talk about point 4 particularly – I spend far too much of my time on that in most of my life – and the ways of achieving point 1 are so diverse as to defy consideration in this context, so let’s briefly discuss points 2 and 3.
If you have a process, you can break that process into steps, you can assign roles and responsibilities to those steps. This is useful in a variety of ways, the first of which is that you can start to scale the process by having different people working on different steps – sometimes in parallel. Imagine having one person having to count all of the votes in the US presidential election, or even having multiple people doing it, but having to do so in series: it might work, but it’s going to take way too long. Another benefit is one on which the Industrial Revolution was built: specialisation. Some people will be good at some parts of the process, and others at other parts of the process. You can increase efficiency by putting those with expertise on the right pieces of the process. A third, unrelated to efficiency, is separation of responsibilities. Sometimes, it’s important that certain people, who are experts or certified to perform a particular role, are the ones who do that. Often, it’s even more important that certain people don’t perform those roles. An example of this would be if one of the candidates in an election was the one to perform the final tally of votes and hand the result to the person making the announcement, or if they made the announcement themselves. This is equally true for other types of process: your bank does not want you to be the person who provides the final approval for your loan, and a company does not want a spouse, partner or family member to be providing sign-off for a hiring decision.
Norms, rules, regulation and legislation
In the UK, we have strong social norms around the process of queuing, and you will be subject to social (and sometimes stronger!) censure if you break them. Rules around other processes may be stronger, and sometimes regulation by an industry body or even legislation at the nation level (or multi-national level such as EU or UN) is required to safeguard the appropriate execution of a process. The ability for courts to intervene where vote-rigging may have taken place is a good example in the US election process, but legislation and regulation around anything from wiring a house to what fertilisers are allowed on particular crops provide additional levels of checking and assurance that processes are following correctly (by including censure or punishment for those who have contravened them) or can be remedied when not (through other processes such as legal review or court cases).
Legislation and regulation can be annoying, but without them (or equivalent rules and norms for other types of process), we cannot be sure of what we are getting into, or whether, if we get into it improperly, that we will ever get out of it. People support and are subject to these checks and balances, and without the combination of all of them (not forgetting the technology as well), processes are next to useless.
1 – I am not a lawyer. Nor a constitutional expert. Nor even a US citizen. Basically, do not take my word for any of this.
2 – I love this word. We should use it more often.