This former Microsoft engineering exec is now working to fix bugs in the U.S. political system

Jon DeVaan, former Microsoft engineering leader and board member of Represent Us.

Jon DeVaan, a former Microsoft Windows engineering leader, knows a thing or two about addressing flaws in complex systems.

“When there was a bug or a class of bugs, you didn’t just go and fix them,” he says, describing the “systems perspective” that he and his former colleagues used. “You actually asked, how did this bug happen? What were the underlying conditions? How could we have structured the engineering process differently so that this bug wouldn’t have happened?”

In recent years, DeVaan has been applying the same type of thinking to his work in political reform. He has become deeply involved in political reform since retiring in 2013 after 30 years at the company, including a role on the board of Represent Us, a bipartisan organization seeking to end corruption in politics.

“It’s not going to be enough just to beat a few politicians in a few elections,” he says. “We have to go back and examine things like the incentive structure. Why are politicians behaving the way that they behave?

DeVaan spoke about his work in political reform on a recent episode of the GeekWire Podcast. Continue reading for edited excerpts from his comments.

How he got involved in political reform: So, think back in time, it’s about the year 2000. Microsoft is in the throes of its antitrust trial. And Orrin Hatch, in veiled, but clear language tells Microsoft, “If you’d have been giving your political contributions, you wouldn’t have any of this trouble now,” which is a fantastically corrupt statement. And of course, we weren’t dummies at Microsoft. Not dummies now either, just to be clear. So we started giving our political contributions. That’s when the Microsoft PAC (Political Action Committee) was created.

And it was an insider seat that I had to see how ridiculous it was, and how wrong it was, but necessary if you wanted to have a seat at the table in government. When I left in 2014, I started investigating how we can fix this. And that’s how I came to know Represent Us, which I like because of its execution ability, the way it talks about the political system as having been corrupted, and also the set of policies that we champion around the country to fix it, and make it not have to be a pay-to-play system anymore.

What about the impact of disinformation on the political system? We absolutely have to figure out what to do about disinformation. And what’s interesting is that that duopoly structure and the incentives that it creates is why political parties don’t push back on people foisting the disinformation. And just recently we had the president of the United States foisting the disinformation. If we can change the incentives, then the disinformation will settle down. But I agree that in the long run, we still have to do a lot of work to figure out how to make sure that the marketplace of ideas is really competitive.

What should companies do right now while we’re waiting for reform? First of all, all companies that have paused their donations, I think that’s a very positive thing. And I hope that they join Microsoft at least in the embargo of donations to people who contributed to what happened on January 6. I think that’s really a bare minimum.

What about the larger issue of campaign finance? Represent Us advocates a policy we call the American Anti-Corruption Act. And actually back in 2015, that Anti-Corruption Act was used as a starting point for what eventually became the Seattle Honest Elections Law. The way that public financing works in Seattle with the ethics board and the public vouchers, we see is the best way to do public financing of campaigns. And we believe that all campaigns should be publicly financed.

How is Seattle’s implementation of this concept working? “I think it’s working pretty well. You’re seeing the amount of money that flows into elections becoming much more even. It’s not just the high wealth zip codes that are contributing money to elections now. I think that’s a really positive thing. You’re seeing a lot more people run, and I think that’s a really positive thing. And that has to lead to better representation of people inside the city. And we have some tough issues inside the city now with homelessness and Amazon and other things. And as far as I can tell, the citizens aren’t necessarily super aligned on what should happen. I think that means we have to have more voices inside the political process trying to influence it so that we can figure it out.

Further steps: There is a historic opportunity right now to support the For the People Act, HR 1, in Congress. It gets positioned as a Democratic Party thing that’s bad for Republicans, but it’s really not. If you have concerns about making sure that voter rolls are accurate, if you have concerns about that votes are secure and that you can do audits to make sure that the election results are correct, you want HR 1 to pass.

This notion of how politicians choose their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians through gerrymandering is probably the number-one cause that leads to polarization. If you don’t like that, HR 1 will stop gerrymandering by drawing districts with a non-partisan commission. Really important.

If you don’t like the way that that money and lobbying influence works in Congress, HR 1 helps that. And it has some beginnings on helping balance the powers so that the executive branch just can’t ignore the oversight capabilities of Congress.

So those are all really positive things. They are not partisan in any way. They are just about making the system better, make it easier for citizens to express their will at the ballot box, and in a way that hopefully it will foster honest and reasonable debate going into the future.

See this post for Jon DeVaan’s list of recommended books, articles and other resources that have informed his understanding of these issues. 

Editor’s Note: Microsoft provides financial support for GeekWire’s independent journalism as underwriter of our civic coverage. Coverage decisions are the sole discretion of GeekWire’s editorial team, without involvement or influence from underwriters. Learn more about underwritten content on GeekWire.

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