I wrote this to help explain the importance of citizen experience to some American friends. It’s not so much a post as an early prototype for a talk, or at least the introduction to one. I thought I’d share it here too.
I’d like to tell you why I think paying attention to the citizen experience is so important, and why citizen experience design can help reinvent government by adopting tools from customer experience, design and innovation.
Government is in distress. From City Hall to Capitol Hill, the public sector faces an uneven economy, partisan polarization, jarring shifts in global power, and our own struggles at home to keep up with the demands of an aging population, the offshore migration of manufacturing and increasingly innovation, and a growing gap between rich and poor that shows the American dream coming true for fewer people in every new generation since the 1970s.
In the face of these challenges, the machinery of government often seems stalled. Leaders and citizens alike seem unable to agree on a common course of action. Finger pointing, fear and blind ideology from all corners fuel empty rhetoric that replaces action with blame when action is what’s needed most.
In a culture of blame, no one wants to make the wrong decision. Fortunately, making the right decisions shifts our politicians, public servants, and communities from debating to doing, from posturing to practical solutions, and from doubt to confidence even in the face of uncertainty. We have amazing power that transcends partisan paralysis and unites our neighborhoods and nation when people align around a common cause.
History repeatedly demonstrates this unity: from the War of Independence to the Depression to the civil rights movement, the Apollo missions and the aftermath of 9/11, we have pulled together.
But how can we find such unity short of genuine crisis?
Of course I don’t have a silver bullet. But I do have lessons from the past century of product design and innovation. In that world, things took a dramatic leap forward when the customer experience became a key consideration. Customer experience has become a bridge between different parts of the enterprise, creating more effective, efficient and innovative opportunities.
I believe that focusing on the citizen experience can serve as a similar catalyst for action in government.
Conscious citizen experience design can help us make the right decisions, faster. And in fact, the tools that a citizen experience focus brings together can help just about anyone make better, faster decisions.
By citizen experience, I don’t just mean the civic experience of elections and voting, or participatory democracy. I mean the entire daily sum of interactions and benefits that a citizen experiences through both the direct and indirect actions of the public sector. That includes programs and services, policy and planning, funding, taxation, subsidies and economic development. It means dealing with specific needs, and with the broad attitudes and expectations that develop in a community. It spans all levels of government and extends into education, healthcare, and government funded non-profits. And it makes a profound difference in the kind of people, the kind of communities and the kind of nation that we are today and that we aspire to become tomorrow.
Citizen experience design is a practice devoted to improving that daily citizen experience. It draws on the best of what we know from customer experience, design and innovation. Citizen experience design doesn’t replace how we practice government. Instead it adds to the toolkit, giving civil servants and citizens more tools to improve our communities and make better, more confident decisions.
Citizen experience design can improve two significant areas of government: service delivery and policymaking.
Service delivery is often what we think of first when we think of government. Governments deliver programs and services, from national defense to education to community programs to the people. That’s its biggest job. And when you have a problem where you need government yourself, you typically draw on a program or service.
Policy making might seem like government nerd talk (and it can be). But to really improve the citizen experience, you have to make the right decisions. And policy making is all about engineering the decision DNA of government. Policy determines the official why, what and how of government decisions.
When government seems stalled, poor service delivery or policy is often the culprit.
Understanding a program or service from the citizen’s point of view is the path to eradicating inefficient bureaucracy. By taking on this “outside-in” perspective, service delivery can be optimized and focused on what matters most to citizens. Services and programs can be rapidly prototyped, the best alternatives evaluated, and pilots and rollouts managed with lower risk.
That improves outcomes across the board, from cost-savings to employee engagement, citizen satisfaction and public trust and confidence in public institutions. Optimizing this public sector service value chain of engagement, satisfaction and trust creates an upward spiral that continually improves service delivery, all while improving efficiencies and budget savings.
Policy making can be harder to change, since so much is driven by political ideology, bureaucratic inertia, or the influence of lobby groups in one form or another.
However, there are opportunities to shape policy for the better, especially at the local level. When a department or branch of government wants to truly be citizen-centric in its decisions, citizen experience design can help with two major challenges.
The first challenge is understanding all the different stakeholders and their values and viewpoints. Too often policy becomes a battleground, rather than an opportunity for change. That adversarial attitude often comes from misunderstandings and assumptions about what matters to everyone around the table. Using research tools from design, citizen experience can help identify and clarify the agendas at play. This includes field research about actual behavior, codesign with stakeholders, and exploratory concept design that all go beyond typical consultations.
Secondly, citizen experience design can help bridge those viewpoints by creating concrete artifacts to create common ground. By visualizing the challenges and opportunities in more concrete ways, from models to diagrams to prototypes, different stakeholders are better able to express their views and find common values that move decision making forward.
By giving us more tools for service delivery and policy making, citizen experience design can help reinvent government. But the biggest contribution may just be in the idea of “citizen experience” itself.
When citizen experience becomes the playing field for politicians and civil servants then everyone benefits. Having a clear, deliberate conversation about the citizen experience and how to improve it creates common ground for contributions from all participants. Focusing on the citizen experience clarifies our shared values and helps reduce the influence of special interests, since the citizen is at the center of the conversation.
The end result can be an agreement on what matters most: improving the daily lives of people. And that can help sow the seeds of a culture of opportunity and unity instead of a culture of blame and division.
Like I said, there’s no silver bullets. But citizen experience can be a valuable and important contribution to reinventing government for the better for you and your community today, and help accelerate the recovery of the nation tomorrow.