Hello everyone! In the following weeks I will be focusing on tech and design applied to the world at large and the institutions and forces that affect our every day lives. Government, city planning, tech, design and sustainability coming together to design the cities of the future.
How do we work towards reducing emissions and combating climate change while planning for the inevitable (i.e. population growth, increasingly severe weather, population displacement/migration)? There are many brilliant scientists, designers, entrepreneurs and thought-leaders out there thinking of solutions every day. I believe implementation of these brilliant ideas starts with injecting more humanity into the functioning of our governments.
We have all heard it. Starting from the campaign trail speeches, all the way to the state of the union address. Government and politicians are here to make our lives better. We the people, our well-being, our everyday struggles and how we live, are the main inspiration and the main concern. But is policy as “user-centric” as it ought to be? Shouldn’t the positive impact of policy that is designed to improve our lives be obvious to us, the users? Could design-thinking build a bridge of trust between politicians and their constituents?
Design-thinking solves problems by focusing on humans. It’s core principles are empathy, listening, experimentation and iteration. Doesn’t that sound like exactly what we want from people who are writing the laws that govern our businesses, courts of law, etc?. But when was the last time you heard about politicians spending resources and time deeply understanding the user, identifying key problems, coming up with solutions as part of a diverse, interdisciplinary (read: all races, creeds, professional backgrounds, and political affiliations) team and prototyping/testing solutions? Let alone doing this process over and over again, improving each time.
Dione Scott’s insightful article breaks down the stages of design-thinking and their impact on government. Essentially, using design-thinking would force government to truly get to know constituents, their experiences, their needs regarding specific issues. For instance, if someone was interested in passing a law to make it easier for people to vote (crazy random thought there), they would need to:
Speak to potential voters and experienced voters. Ask in direct and indirect ways about their experience voting or learning what they need to do to vote. Connect with them in small, intimate and diverse groups and dive deep. Dione Scott details an empathy example that is quite interesting, “Participants use a photo that resonates with them to share something about themselves.” This evidently helps these groups open up to each other, builds trust and allows public servants to obtain useful, honest answers.
Politicians, and others in positions of power, need to stop assuming they know what the problems are. Methodically walking through the experience of the people who will be affected by a particular piece of legislature, will make core issues more evident and take guesswork (and hubris, quite frankly) out of the equation. In this specific example, you could create a journey map of the timeline from zero to casting your vote. Additionally, a system map could be employed to identify and analyze the relationships between different parts of the democratic system that contribute to poor voter turnout. Believe me, even if you think you’ve memorized every nut and bolt of the system, laying it out in front of you with other people will inevitably result in someone identifying a new issue.
Most people would jump right into brainstorming without having properly framed the issue, this is inefficient and will likely take you down the wrong path. A key part in this process is ensuring the composition of the team is truly diverse. This is a well-documented, monster-of-a-problem in Washington. Demographically, there is a long way to go (though there is hope). The less popular and controversial issue regarding diversity in DC pertains to professional background. What do you think would happen if you gathered a scientist, an designer, a lawyer, a software engineer and a psychologist and asked them all to come up with ideas to increase voter turnout? I guarantee the answers would be a lot more effective and numerous than sitting 5 identical lawyers in a room and asking them the same.
Bringing the scientific method to government! We have reached my favorite, and least common, part of developing better laws. Ever heard of prototyping or testing laws? Experimental legislation? Me either. But after some serious Googling, I found this 2011 paper in European Public Law by two Dutch scholars entitled ‘Better Regulation through Experimental Legislation’. Jackpot. This article discusses applying an evidence-based approach to legislation, the authors state:
Until today, most Better Regulation (BR) tools, such as consultations, expert advice, and Impact Assessments (IAs), usually produce rather soft evidence, at least from a methodological perspective. A possibility to change this would be to rely more on experimental legislation and try out new laws and regulations first on a small scale and for a limited period before enacting more permanent laws.
Of course there are issues with relying fully on this process as a blind and definitive answer. As all of us scientists know, that is not the way of science. Science isn’t static, it’s constantly evolving. It relies on experimentation and iteration, just like design-thinking. We stand on the shoulders of giants, asking more probing and intelligent questions every time. The authors address this and conclude,
The experimental method will not solve all difficulties. It is, after all, only a subsidiary method. The course to be followed is to give experimentation its place as a means of obtaining data for deductions, not to base political action wholly upon experiment and nothing else, for this would be to make the conclusions derived from it merely empirical laws.
Politics isn’t science but it could benefit from its methods, as long as there is a concerted effort to embed the human element in every step of the process. Always go back to the user, there is no final answer. People change and so should policy.
Cover photo source.
Scott, Dione. “Embracing Design Thinking in Government.” Policy Options, 9 Mar. 2018, policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/march-2018/embracing-design-thinking-in-government/.
Van Gestel, Rob; van Dijck, Gijs. “Better Regulation through Experimental Legislation,” European Public Law vol. 17, no. 3 (September 2011): p. 539-554. HeinOnline, https://heinonline-org.ezproxy.neu.edu/HOL/P?h=hein.kluwer/epl0017&i=547.