Why Even Bother With a User-Centered, Digital Gov’t?

Recently a British civil servant named Paul Maltby tweeted a question that led to a flurry of helpful suggestions. He asked:

“What would you put on a reading list for gov policy people eager to dig deeper on digital?”

In that beautiful, typically internet-y way, it took only moments for a list of articles, blog posts, books, videos and the odd especially-smart tweet to come together. By the end of the day, Paul had curated into existence an unofficial library for a movement that still doesn’t really have a name, a movement that I’ve been part of for over a decade. It’s a great resource, and you should all fill your browsers with interesting tabs from it, right now.

Thanks to Paul and everyone who submitted answers to his question, I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading through a lot of articles that mostly revolve around the question of how to turn not-very-usable public services into much-more-usable public services, with a digital side. I’ve got lots of good tips and ideas, which I’ll try to deploy in my own work.

As I read, though, I started to feel that there was something missing, both from the writings of others, and the posts and essays I’ve written myself over the years.

What’s missing is the “Why?”

I think that the lack of writing on “Why?” might simply come from the fact that for many people it seems so obvious why we should make government more usable, and more digital. I mean, it’s got to be done, come on! This is 2017, people!

I know that feeling, and I empathize with it. But I think that if our field is to thrive and upgrade ever more government services, it needs some slightly more rigorous philosophical underpinnings. If we don’t have them then we’ll tend to lose out in the really big debates against representatives of other fields, like economics and politics, who can claim that their arguments are based on Big Important Ideas. In contrast we’re in danger of looking a bit superficial, a bit like people who understand elegant minimalist design more than we understand political ideas, tradeoffs, and traditions.

Furthermore, making government services more modern and usable is just really hard—it can often burn people out, and takes real determination. Being more explicit about the values that push us forward might help when things are tough, as they inevitably will be sometimes.

Some personal answers

The following values drive me to work on more usable, more digital government:

  1. Compassion

  2. Fairness

  3. The value of government itself

  4. Respect

  5. Transparency

It’s very unlikely that I have the best or definitive underpinning ideas as to why usable, digital government reform is worth it. But I hope that by sharing some of the values that underpin my own long-term passion for the field, that I might provoke some others to share their ideas. Here’s a deeper dive into why each of those five items is on this list.

1. Compassion

I have a somewhat precious confession to make: I hate using badly designed products and services, especially online. Bad usability makes me grumpy and judgmental.

I don’t, however, feel this way because I am a particularly aesthetic individual—I am not especially upset by the ugliness of life and the lack of art and beauty in the world. What underpins my annoyance is that I feel like someone who has some kind of power over me at a particular moment in time has decided that they just don’t care whether or not I’m happy, whether or not I waste my time. I feel like I’m being exposed to the consequences of someone else’s selfishness, even if that person isn’t present at all. I feel the radioactive tang of this ‘vast carelessness’ most often as I stand in front parking ticket machines and train ticket machines – maybe you feel this tool.

Stepping back from the emotive language, what I am saying here is that, at least to me, badly designed services show a lack of compassion on the part of their creator. To me, being compassionate to others is a moral imperative, not a ‘nice to have,’ especially when your job as a public servant gives you power over other people. Translated to the world of design and technology, I believe it means that governments that have enough resources to design services well have a moral imperative to, an imperative that cascades down to those of us who deliver the work.

2. Fairness

Hard-to-use public services are unfair. They are unfair because highly skilled, highly educated people can navigate through maze-like processes and successfully achieve what they were setting out to achieve. Less skilled, less educated people are more likely to get lost in the process and fail to complete whatever it was they were trying to achieve.

This pattern means that highly skilled people are more likely to get public services they ask for, and more likely to meet their legal obligations when it comes to activities like paying taxes or obtaining licenses and permissions. Less skilled people are disproportionately likely to fail to get the services that they try to use, and more likely to face penalties for failing to fulfill their bureaucratic obligations to the state.

Making a service more usable has a disproportionately positive effect on people who need all the help they can get to successfully interact with state institutions. Good service design certainly helps everyone, but it helps the less highly skilled more, narrowing the gap between them and fortunate people like me.

In short, we should make services usable because unusable services are unfair.

3. The value of government itself

Living as I do in Europe, there is no particular shame in saying that I value the existence and continued functioning of good government. I apologize if I have shocked any of my libertarian friends in their bunkers in Utah.

I have, for a while, been worried that rapidly changing technologies might erode the idea that government is worth having at all. After all, if you live all day in your Facebook VR helmet, use Uber to travel everywhere, and eat exclusively from Deliveroo and Amazon, it is quite possible that you might start to think that paying for abstract ideas like national security or the rule of law seems like an unnecessary and rather old-fashioned expense.

This threat to the legitimacy of government as an essential part of functioning societies is ever-present, but I fear it getting much worse if the gap between private and public services widens beyond a certain level. To see what I mean, consider the following thought experiment.

A person visiting a government building in the 1980s might well have felt that it wasn’t as nice a place to spend time in as their local mall or local diner. They might also have felt that the treatment they got was less friendly or efficient. But they would have recognized the basic idea that people go to buildings and get services from them. Government wouldn’t have seemed entirely alien or mysterious, just a bit shabby.

However, in the future the chasm between the experience of using public and private services might get so big that people become unable to recognize or actually use government services at all. Will, for example, the Snapchat generation be able to fill in a paper form? Will they even know what a paper form is for? What happens when they ask Alexa about their need to pay taxes or obtain building permits and Alexa doesn’t know? To this generation government may not simply look inconvenient, it might look like something that’s fundamentally broken. And why should anyone pay for or endorse something that’s both incomprehensible and fundamentally broken at the same time? Especially when your Amazon Prime+++ subscription includes health insurance, unlimited travel and university education, too…

In summary, I think we should bother building excellent, usable public services so that people don’t decide that government doesn’t need to exist at all.

4. Respect (especially of people’s money)

All public servants have a duty to ensure that money from taxation is used as well as possible, and with as little waste, loss or fraud as possible. They have to do this not just because of legal audit requirements, but because losing or wasting other people’s money is both disrespectful of and hurtful to the people who supplied the money in the first place.

Unfortunately, the fundamental imbalance of knowledge between public servants and vendors from companies has led to massive losses to the public purse over the last two decades—I’ve written on this before. I could list a bunch of high profile failures, but if you’ve read this far then you’ve already got your own list, I’m sure.

I don’t want such wastes of money to happen, and there’s only one way I know how to lower this risk. That method is to increase the technical, design and project management skill of public institutions so that they are fundamentally less vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous suppliers, and less vulnerable to making well-intentioned decisions with ruinous consequences. I should really write a whole separate essay on why I believe that digital upskilling reduces net cost and total waste, but for the purposes of this more philosophical piece, let’s just say that my belief that it does is one of the things that motivates me to do my work.

5. Transparency

Transparency is not an unalloyed, noncontingent good like love or compassion. It’s just a means to a series of desirable ends, but it happens to be a means that I care a great deal about, and where a lot of my professional life was focused until relatively recently. I’m not a radical transparency campaigner—who thinks governments should have no secrets—but I strongly believe that a steady move towards more transparency drives governments to serve their citizens better, to make fewer mistakes, and to course-correct more effectively.

One of the terrific things about high quality digital government overhaul is that you can sometimes introduce transparency without having to fight and win giant political battles. This is because there’s a ton of information that governments have that is not hidden because it’s a state secret, it’s just obscure because prior to the internet age, government didn’t have a great way of making it easy to access.

Thanks to the internet, it’s now possible to share and see lots of this stuff that wasn’t secret, merely obscure. Even better, this can be done as a legitimate part of a performance-focused digital overhaul, one that’s aimed mainly at better services, not greater transparency. Take, for example, the U.K. Government’s performance dashboards. These make transparent a whole load of interesting and potentially actionable stuff that wasn’t public for no reason other than the fact that it wasn’t easy to make it public.

Your turn

I’ve enjoyed writing this piece because it’s made me realize that my work and passion for better, more usable digital government is about a lot more than just one value, like fairness or efficiency. It’s made me dig into my thoughts, and uncover some motivations that I found to be somewhat surprising.

Now I’d really like to see others do the same, because it’s not until we have a real debate that the main drivers will really become clear. And once they are clear, we can use them to push for more, better change, with our feet planted solidly on firm ground.