Governments’ key competitor is complexity

People have been trained by the likes of Amazon and Google to expect that things will be made fast and easy for them. However, often when they interact with government they find that things are slow and difficult. The thought that government is complex is corrosive to democracy. People wonder why their taxes are being wasted. Thus, the competitor that government should be relentlessly focused on is complexity.

Traditional government cultures thrive on complexity. In a particularly hierarchical and bureaucratic organization, the need to follow the rules and respect the line of command can be overwhelming. Traditional governments excel at taking young, idealistic and enthusiastic recruits and grinding them down until they become perfected cogs in the big machine.

That model of organization can work in a slow, predictable world where the citizen respects and trusts government. However, in a fast-changing, complex world, meeting complexity with complexity undermines public trust and confidence.

More than many organizations, governments are obsessed with being seen to be doing things. The minister cutting the ribbon is often seen to be of far greater importance than the usability of the system. The focus is too often on the big splash, the groovy press event and then it’s done, finished, on to the next big thing. The thing is the thing, the system is the thing, the new building is the thing, the website is the thing, the app is the thing.

In government, it’s very hard to resist the unwritten consensus that who you are really working for is the politicians, not the public. The public may pay your wage but they don’t give you the pay rise and they don’t decide how your career will progress. Thus, there is a great fear of communicating bad news upwards. Those trying to make truly citizen-centric web experiences are often seen as troublemakers because invariably they are constantly resisting effusive, hyperbolic, politician-pleasing hype. It is particularly dangerous to point out flaws in the thing-to-be-launched, as euphoric groupthink or delusional group denial sweeps the landscape. In government, they don’t just shoot the messenger; they torture them first.

Governments tend to be obsessed with costs and being seen to be delivering value. This often means going for the cheapest price and cutting out ‘unnecessary’ things like testing and training. Governments will spend millions and billions on monstrously guaranteed-to-fail IT systems but will have nervous breakdowns if it’s suggested to slow things down a little and spend tiny budget amounts on proper research and rigorous testing. Governments never seem to have time to do things right, but always find time to do things wrong.

Governments love to policy-bomb the public, explaining in excruciating detail why something needs to be done in a certain way, instead of getting out of the way and just letting the citizen or business quickly do the thing they need to do.

There is hope. There is real hope that many governments are working to overcome the worst instincts of large political organizations. GOV.UK has been a shining example of what can be achieved with a citizen-centric culture. There is great work happening in the Canadian and other governments. Is it perfect? No. But when I think back to twenty years ago, government has come a long way towards changing its culture. Because without a citizen-centric culture, government can never hope to address the challenges and opportunities that digital brings.

PS: I will be giving a talk at the International Design in Government Conference in Rotterdam in November. I’m looking for examples of citizen-centric strategies that can show clear evidence of improvement. Ideally, I’d like Before and After screengrabs, and then data that said: “Resulted in 20% increase in form completions,” for instance.

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