Government Experience Design: Open Source

Disclaimer: As I work for the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, this posting does not reflect the opinions of that office or the Washington State judiciary. I speak here as a private citizen interested in improving the way government functions. Nothing here implies or otherwise suggests the support of my employer or of the Washington State judicial branch.

This is the final post in a series of blog posts expanding on the four ideas I consider central to government experience design: transparency, listening, adaptability, and open source. In all four posts, I aim to provide concrete ideas for how governments can deliberately think about the experience that citizens have when interacting with them.

Open Source
Open source is a subset of transparency; I call it out separately here because it warrants a bit further explanation. The open source software movement is the idea that, by publishing the source code of a particular piece of software, that software will become stronger because many eyeballs are reading that source code and thinking of improvements and finding security flaws. This philosophy is easily extensible into the government domain; what would it be like if we could crack open the source code of government programs (once again, within reason) and help to find flaws in logic and computation? What if citizens could save governments money because they fixed bugs?

The idea extends beyond software as well, to being able to see how legislation evolves over time – imagine being able to see the original draft of a piece of legislation, then how that legislation was changed, with each legislator’s change listed clearly for all to see. Watching how a key law changes over time to reflect the current state of affairs can be a valuable tool in the citizens’ toolbox. Think of it as "Track Changes" in a word processor; auditability becomes a key component of determining how government is working in the interests of the people.

That’s not to say that open source ideals will always make sense or should always be used. Does it always make sense to allow for the "many eyeballs" philosophy to strengthen government operations? The most straightforward example I can provide here is the judiciary; it doesn’t make sense to pry open the books on parenting proceedings, for instance. There are some facets of what the judiciary decides that do not warrant visibility for the level of impact they provide. There are other examples of when applying this ideal may not make sense. The point here, though, is that those examples are necessarily limited and well-justified.

Government should:

  • Consider that most actions it takes are, by default, auditable. The Freedom of Information Act and its compatriots make it abundantly clear that people can get information about things out of government, for the government is in service of the people. The issue is that there are often roadblocks; formal requests must be made, reviewed, approved, disseminated, and commented on before the information is released. If what the government produces belongs to the people, are roadblocks always necessary? This point was made in the original post on government transparency, but the "more eyeballs" approach functions best when this component is present. It is thus worth restating.
  • Allow open-sourcing internal software when doing so does not adversely affect individuals. Person-based systems – those where individuals are central to the operation of the system and the system would not be able to operate without having an individual selected – are exempt here because these types of systems tend to be about managing "life events" (marriages, court cases, licensing, etc.). Programs, though, that deal with statistical reporting or data that is already publicly available should be examined for open sourcing to allow citizens to understand how the data government holds is being manipulated and used to support decision-making processes.
  • Dive in to open source with both eyes open. Do not simply throw programs out under an open source license simply because they are there. Data dissemination personnel, legal services staff, records officers, and IT staff all need to understand the impact of releasing code and materials to the public. Such an action changes the conversation government has with its constituency, and the ramifications are not to be taken lightly.
  • Consider what could be done internally to foster an "open source"-like culture. The "more eyeballs" philosophy applies to all problems, not just those that are software-related. Culturally, government agencies need to fight the tendency to "silo" information. It is in the interests of government to break down as many silos as possible, as it is only through collaboration across units that agencies can find efficiency gains in an era where funding has already been cut to the bone. This includes reducing the likelihood that something gets done multiple times by different people for different reasons.

Government experience design is less about nitpicking over the details of whether or not a certain government agency should or should not release information and whether it needs to focus on the needs of the people it serves; instead, it focuses on mileposts. There are varying degrees of implementation of government experience design principles, and it is a fairly easy argument that there are deeper and more varied facets than what this series outlines. Part of why this series was written was to "open source" this idea and begin a conversation: what does it mean to engage with government? What does it mean for government agencies to serve the people? Which people? With what services? Do those agencies have any rights to withhold even when they operate within the public realm?

Is it enough to throw information management and user experience design philosophies at government and call it done? No. Government tends to be slower to evolve than other companies; to a degree, they can afford this. This is a funding problem, a person problem, an information problem, a philosophical problem, an environmental problem, and a cultural problem. What tools, then, can government begin to use to better itself? Government experience design proposes that the first step to that is a basic set of tenets, upon which agencies can build. It is not at all a panacea, nor is it intended as one. It does, however, start a conversation; one that, in this author’s opinion, sorely needs starting.

Three Words for 2014

As in 2013, I’ve decided this year to compile a list of three words that will guide by work over the next year. Each of these are fluid; they may shift somewhat over the year, but are based on what I know about my professional goals thus far.

having or showing determination or resolve.

One of my agency’s major projects over the next several years is to replace the case management system used by Washington’s Superior courts. As part of that work, there will be changes required to the applications I manage in order to make sure that the workflows of the juvenile and Superior courts, as well as the courts of limited jurisdiction, are not disrupted. Part of this effort requires me to be purposeful: purposeful in my communication with others about what changes are needed, or why certain business processes cannot be disrupted; purposeful in communicating with the users of my application to show them how the two systems will interact; and purposeful in ensuring that, when all is said and done, the courts still have working applications.

Part of my job is as technical subject matter expert for the juvenile courts; as I’ve covered in previous blog posts, the juvenile "courts" are in fact departments of each county’s Superior court. They must be represented just as well as if not better than the Superior courts themselves. This requires a large amount of coordination amongst a range of user groups. I must approach this work with determination to ensure a successful end result.

to elevate in degree, excellence, or respect; dignify; exalt

I decided to replace listening this year, as I realized that listening, for me, is omnipresent and need not take up a slot on this list. While listening is still a huge focus area for me, I opted to take a slightly different tact.

For me, ennoble refers to the idea that the needs of the users are paramount. This is not to say that they are always right, merely to say that their opinions and ideas should be elevated in respect compared to others who are not as familiar with business processes or needs. The users know their jobs best; how else can they perform them?

I think of this as a weighting method: while all voices should be heard equally, the ideas and opinions of those that actually do the work should be respected and allowed to set tone and direction.

an assistant to an important person; a servant or courtier.

Ennoble and attendant are two very similar ideas for me, but are definitely distinct. Whereas ennoble focuses more on giving ideas and people a voice, attendant is to remind me that I do not work in a vacuum. I chose this over servant, as servitude can sometimes be read as a negative connotation.

For me, being attendant means recognizing that the people around me also have things that need done, and if I can enable their work by assisting them, I should. Not all things that cause me to be attendant should be ennobled; simply because I am helping with something does not mean that it is somehow more important or requires more respect than the work I am doing for my users. If ennoble is my method of weighting requests, attendant is my method of performance.

These three words are the result of my self-reflection over what I have done since last January and reflect what how I intend to steer the work that I do in 2014. The most important part of the execution of my words this year, I think, will involve making others familiar with what they are and how they contribute to my goals, then living those words as best as possible.

Word Choice

Disclaimer: As I work for the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, this posting does not reflect the opinions of that office or the Washington State judiciary. I speak here for myself and to review my own performance at a high level. Nothing here implies or otherwise suggests the support of my employer or of the Washington State judicial branch.

Back in January, I put together a list of three words for 2013 that would serve to guide me throughout the year. I confess, though I haven’t actually formally looked back at these words since, they have still been in the back of my mind throughout my work. Those three words: reinvent, listen, and unreserved.

In late March, I formally took over as the applications lead for two systems maintained by my agency: the Juvenile and Corrections System (JCS), responsible for maintaining data about juvenile detention and juvenile court interactions statewide; and the Adult Static Risk Assessment tool (ASRA), responsible for predicting the likelihood that offenders would reoffend based on past criminal history. Until that point, I was supported by a senior specialist who owned those applications for a number of years up until his retirement.

Part of my drive at the agency since being hired almost two years ago has been to begin steering both applications in a new direction and to rejuvenate both applications to better serve their users. This is particularly challenging in a court system where the courts are independent entities from one another, as one must balance the needs of the state as a whole against those of any one stakeholder. JCS adds to this complexity, as it serves several key needs.

Reinvention here refers less to tearing everything down and starting from scratch and more to increasing relevance and usability. We have begun to do this; however, the entire agency was sidelined by a major data breach, which re-focused our efforts onto internal security. Nevertheless, I feel as if I have been successful in pushing the need to modernize and make more relevant the applications that I am responsible for.

In listening, I am not sure that I will ever quite succeed. Being hearing impaired brings its own set of challenges above and beyond those with so-called “normal” hearing (whatever that means!). I could spend entire blog posts discussing how “normal” hearing is actually quite subjective (and would probably be attacked by hordes of audiologists disagreeing with me from a clinical perspective). In choosing this word, I wanted to practice listening to users and major stakeholders; this has also been a large component of my reinvention focus. Since I started, I have made it a routine practice to attend as many of the training classes that are related to my applications as I can. The rationale is twofold: first, it increases my visibility to the people that I serve, and second, it serves as a valuable step back, allowing me to look at my work from a different angle.

In each training, I make a point of standing up, introducing myself, and stressing that the application cannot evolve without the input of the people in the room. I cannot do my job and be successful without knowing what my users need and want. What I see as a problem may be working perfectly from a process perspective, or my great idea may simply serve to slow others down when implemented. The lifeblood of both applications is how involved the users are in determining their direction. For JCS in particular, I have been very successful in doing so; these training introductions and subsequent discussions have led directly to requests from the same users for system improvements and enhancements.

Being unreserved is requisite in our court environment: all of the court levels must be represented to the best of our ability. This is a large part of why I selected this particular word to represent my work in the first place: the juvenile “courts”, although we call them “courts”, are, in fact, departments of the Superior court within each county. As such, they are lumped together under the Superior courts for administrative purposes. Their needs should be represented just as well as – if not better than – the Superior courts themselves, as they serve such an important part of the state’s population.

Another portion of my work at the agency involves work with our web team to maintain several web sites under the umbrella. I serve as a high-level advisor, working on things like search engine functionality, security troubleshooting, and strategic planning. Here, too, I have tried to push this idea of being unreserved: asking questions, making suggestions for improvement, trying to provide a fresh perspective on questions.

These three words, I think, have been accurate reflections of my work over the last year. I will repeat the exercise for 2014, though I expect that at least one of the words – listening – will likely remain.


And a place in his mind was a wrestling-ring
Where the crownless form of an outlawed king
Fought with a shadow too like his own,
And, late or early, was overthrown.
It is not lucky to dream such stuff –
Dreaming men are haunted men.

John Brown’s Body, Stephen Vincent Benét

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

– I Have a Dream Speech, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I have said several times in different places that I live in intersections. Intersections are marvelous places: they reveal connections, context, that might not previously have existed. To borrow yet more words, they are “intertwingled”; as one tugs at the strings or weaves them, the concepts become inseparable from one another until the very meaning is changed because two things have been brought together.

I would like to think that the human race, innately, is a race of explorers, an inquisitive one at that; our explorations are necessarily stubborn, for if we stop exploring, we lose some piece of ourselves. We find ourselves creating our own battlegrounds where our wars of exploration are fought, where we try, as the great Dr. King states, to lay the hills low, to make the crooked places straight.

We fight in our rings with our crownless forms, our ideas, our unknowns, and we find ourselves haunted. These ideas, these unknowns, imprint themselves; even when resolved, when the idea is revealed so clearly that its utility is revealed at long last as a fog lifting off a riverbank, they stay with us.

Intersections haunt me. They tug at me, they dart through shadows, and though they are very clearly rough terrain, mountainsides as yet untamed, they are there, beckoning. Every once in a while, I explore them: government and user experience, environmental sustainability and information management, the practice and art of tutoring with information management. Indeed, my very life is an intersection; I have pulled threads of knowledge out of the ethers and woven them into my personal and professional interests. We all do this, though I find some more adept than others.

Should we ever reach the end, where we cease to be haunted and we all share the same visions, that will be a day indeed, for it shall mean we no longer dream; the world, as we know it, shall cease to exist, for we shall no longer find ourselves interested in it. We shall be shells, discarded and useless.


If there is one thing that disturbs me as a professional, it is apathy.

I believe that whatever work you do, you should endeavor to do it well. It should be relevant and have value to the person that the work is being produced for. I do not believe in working somewhere where you, as a person, are not valued, and where you do not feel a direct relationship between the work being performed and the benefit to others. I believe that if you work somewhere, it should be because you are willing to invest in the business, whatever that business may be.

Thusly, I fail to understand those who are working simply to work. I further fail to understand those who are working to work who actively sabotage efforts. It is not their opinion that matters. The work being performed has a particular purpose, traceable (one hopes) to a particular business need, well-defined or otherwise. Indeed, we would hope that the work is not being performed for no reason. The performance of that work, then, is not an invitation: “hello, we’re working towards something important, please feel free to sabotage us in any manner possible!”

Nor is it an edict: “we decided we must do this, so we must do this, even though we’re clearly failing. Failure is not an option!”

Failing is always an option. Indeed, sometimes failing is the only option that actually makes sense for a project – X number of dollars invested over Y number of hours for a low or nonexistent payoff would tend to suggest that perhaps a company should not invest much further in the endeavor unless gains are provable within a reasonably short amount of time. Small failures are not necessarily bad either, nor is failing often (in fact, failing small and often can easily be preferred over almost never failing, but failing spectacularly the one or two times you do).

The problem is, not all sabotage is necessarily evident immediately, nor is it particularly obvious. Sabotage might be achieved by willingly failing to actively consider all possibilities or all impacts of a particular unit of work. A single refusal to do so does not, in and of itself, necessarily fail a project; it is the accumulation.

Why, then, is apathy so bad? Quite simply: it hinders. It hinders the ability of the organization to work effectively toward its shared goals. It hinders you as the person who is apathetic; simply working for a paycheck, while not necessarily bad, does not contribute to the overall well-being of the organization or of the work you are assigned to. But perhaps more devastatingly, it hinders the people who are there to not only do the work, but to understand why the work is being done and who endeavor to do it well.

To put it more personally, you hinder me.

Now, I am not one to tell people to shut up and get out of my way; far from it. I believe that an investment in helping others become interested in the work again is well worth it. I do not believe that is easy – it most certainly is not. But if not a full restoration of interest, every organization can benefit from having all of its members at least agree that they will work for common purpose.

Because, really, if we are not all working towards a common purpose, what, exactly, do we intend to achieve?

Government Experience Design: Adaptability

Disclaimer: As I work for the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, this posting does not reflect the opinions of that office or the Washington State judiciary. I speak here as a private citizen interested in improving the way government functions. Nothing here implies or otherwise suggests the support of my employer or of the Washington State judicial branch.

This is the third in a series of blog posts expanding on the four ideas I consider central to government experience design: transparency, listening, adaptability, and open-source. In all four posts, I aim to provide concrete ideas for how governments can "design" the experiences that their constituents have when interacting with them.

When one thinks about adaptability, there are actually several possible definitions, whether from life sciences, engineering, or common English. There are a few good definitions:

Adaptation, in biological usage, is the process whereby an organism fits itself to its environment. Roughly, experience guides changes in the organism’s structure so that as time passes the organism makes better use of its environment for its own ends.

Hidden Order, pg. 9 [1]

Many of the works of Paul Hawken – particularly The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism – handle the idea of adaptation at a higher level within the sphere of business. Hawken is not really providing so much an adaptability definition as he is providing the definition and the blueprint for the evolution of business. His contention, briefly, is that business systems ignore the natural environment and fail to incorporate the practices of nature into its lifecycle such that the net effect of business operations actually improves the physical environment rather than detracting from it (this is an oversimplification here for our purposes).

What does that have to do with government? Government should evolve along with the needs of its constituents; to use Hidden Order‘s wording, government should make better use of its ability to interact with its environment – its constituents which it represents. Unfortunately, government is slow to do so, and often when doing so, shrouds processes in a sufficient amount of complexity as to make interaction with government painful.

Thus, government must:

  • Eliminate, reduce, or at least justify the pain. There may be a very good reason why something takes twenty steps instead of five, but often, constituents have no way of seeing why this is the case. If the process really has been optimized to the point where everything is essential, government entities should be able to explain the overhead required in a clear and concise manner. Under no circumstances is government allowed to wave their hands over it and say that it is what it is. If government must force constituents to adapt to its process, it must have strong justification for why the process is not simpler.
  • Look at the needs of citizens. You could argue that they already do, and I agree with that, but they do it wrong. Often, government responses to issues raised either by events or by their constituents are entirely reactionary; they encounter something not previously seen and immediately attempt to rectify the situation. Rarely do we see government be more predictive – looking at patterns of behavior or at trends and responding to those trends with appropriate solutions.

    What this means for us as constituents is that, at least right now, the only way to improve government is to force it to react to events that it had not previously predicted. But this puts the onus on constituents to drive governmental evolution. In government experience design, while we cannot completely obviate the need to react to some form of an input, government needs to be much smarter and much more strategic at looking at long-term patterns within the environment and responding to them independent of any other efforts.
  • Include all stakeholders in adapting. One of the tenets of user experience design is that "you are not the user"; that is, you have no way of knowing what the user wants or needs, because you are not in their heads and have no way of knowing what they think. This is even if you are one of the users of the solution in question. What works for you as a user of that solution does not necessarily imply that the same workflow or approach works for everyone.

    If you want to adapt well, you must adapt based on the input provided by those affected by changes within the environment itself. Whether this is the constituent base – which it often is – or other government agencies – which it often is – it is not sufficient to simply design some adaptation and throw it out there. You might, for instance, alienate key stakeholders who would otherwise have acted as evangelists for that adaptation. Government must consider as many voices as it can in creating an adaptation, even if those voices are not ultimately integrated into the final solution. If this sounds a lot like the points described in the "Listening" aspect of government experience design, it is equally valid – and perhaps even more important – here.
  • Establish multiple environmental "detectors". In other words, it is not sufficient to rely on a single indicator for determining what kinds of adaptations might be required by government in order to best serve the people. Like having only a single canary in a minor branch tunnel of a coal mine to tell you about gas exposure, government cannot react sufficiently looking at only one source of information. This does not imply that everything serves as an input into determining what sorts of adaptation are needed; instead, government must continuously evaluate where information is coming from and what the most useful sources are for deciding what sorts of changes need to be made.
  • Have a well-defined environment. Why was this not first on the list? Environments can be very tricky to nail down when they are constantly shifting in some way; you cannot establish what the environment looks like without, for instance, having multiple information sources telling you about that environment. Leaving out an environmental "detector” means your environment has the potential of not being well-defined. If you miss a major stakeholder in talking about a potential adaptation, your environment is not well-defined (you failed to identify a key stakeholder). If government incorrectly assumes that something will be the case without having some sort of data or documentation to reinforce the assumption, government has not defined its environment well.

All this is not sufficient if government refuses to adapt. Government must adapt – like all business entities and all individuals in today’s wired world, it has absolutely no choice in the matter. But it cannot turn a blind eye to the environmental patterns around it. It must, on some level, adapt; the question here is not whether it has a choice to do so, but whether it utilizes the correct methodologies in adapting.

[1] Holland, John H. 1995. Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity. Perseus Books: Cambridge. ISBN 0-201-44230-2. Return to Post

Government Experience Design: Listening

Disclaimer: As I work for the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, this posting does not reflect the opinions of that office or the Washington State judiciary. I speak here as a private citizen interested in improving the way government functions. Nothing here implies or otherwise suggests the support of my employer or of the Washington State judicial branch.

This is the second in a series of blog posts expanding on the four ideas I consider central to government experience design: transparency, listening, adaptability, and open-source. In all four posts, I aim to provide concrete ideas for how governments can use each of these items to respond to and engage citizens.

As someone who wears hearing aids, this is one of those topics near and dear to my heart. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest to get right. Something I frequently tell people when I talk to them about my hearing is that i can hear what you say without understanding what you say; I register the sound and I know something was said, but the sound, for whatever reason, did not translate into something I could understand. More often than not, this results in frequent "huh?" or "excuse me?" comments in the hope of trying to figure out what was said.

Government can run into the same issue – the people they represent can ask for something and whomever handles the request does, indeed, succeed in giving them something, just not what the requestor actually wanted or needed. This is something very common in library science, and is frequently referred to as the identification of user needs. This is hard to get right without being willing to ask questions and drill down to the difference between what was asked for and what was really meant by the request.

So, really, when I talk about listening, I talk about two parts: hearing what was said, then translating from request to action. When government engages citizens, the process should look something like this:

  1. A citizen makes a request through some medium. This can be electronic, physical, whatever. The point is, this person has a need and believes that the person or office they have contacted can resolve that need. They have stated what they believe they want.
  2. The recipient of the request works to identify the true nature of the request. They talk to the citizen to try to determine what they really want based on the initial request. Sometimes, this really will be what was contained within their first statement; others, because the first statement was vague, requires some repeated questioning to figure out what should be provided in response.
  3. The citizen confirms that what the recipient of the request heard is really what they want. This should be a straight "yes" or "no". This is basically putting a stamp of approval on the request that verifies that what they are told they will get is actually what they want.

    This is actually a key step, since it validates for both parties exactly what will be delivered, and provides a measure of protection so that, if the results of the request are contested, both parties can refer back to this validation step to determine what happened.

  4. At this point, two things can happen: either the information or data requested is provided by the recipient to the requestor, which closes the transaction, or the request is denied and reasons why are clearly explained. If the request is denied, it must be made clear why the request is denied in such a way that the person requesting the data or information feels as if their needs have been respected and that government is still working to represent them.

At no point in this process is the citizen’s need for this information questioned, assuming that the request is made for something reasonable that does not put either the requestor or the recipient of the request at undue risk.

In both the original blog post and here, I have hopefully made it clear that the denial of any request should make the requestor feel as if they are still being well-represented and respected by the government agency the request was made of. Agencies cannot alienate citizens by not providing them clear and well-documented reasons for why their request is denied. Citizens must feel as if they have ways of appealing whatever decision is made. The initial denial of the request cannot be the "last say" in whether they can access what they asked for. This is to provide checks and balances; if the request was incorrectly denied, there needs to be a method of correcting the situation to everyone’s satisfaction.

In the original post, I also called this "civility", because it is – the art of listening is about honoring the person that you are listening to. Under no circumstances does this mean that the person is right, merely that they should be respected. This applies even if the requestor becomes rude or begins to cause problems because they believe they are treated unfairly.

Can listening be translated to software design? Absolutely, but it takes a different form in some ways, because when designing software, we need to be somewhat more circumspect and cannot simply throw the user into an endless loop of trying to define what they’re looking for. Software should be written in such a way that users should be able to try one or two methods of finding what they need before being directed to a human. Solely providing the software as an interface to find what they need is not acceptable, both because software cannot perfectly define a query if the person making the request cannot do so for themselves and because not everyone has easy access to that software (because of disabilities or for other reasons).

Government Experience Design: Transparency

Disclaimer: As I work for the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, this posting does not reflect the opinions of that office or the Washington State judiciary. I speak here as a private citizen interested in improving the way government functions. Nothing here implies or otherwise suggests the support of my employer or of the Washington State judicial branch.

Over the next few blog posts, I intend to expand somewhat on each of the four points I listed originally in positing the idea of government experience design: transparency, listening, adaptability, and open-source. I aim to provide concrete ideas for how each of these items might be implemented within government to improve its ability to respond to and engage citizens.

What is transparency? According to Wikipedia[1],

Transparency, as used in science, engineering, business, the humanities and in a social context more generally, implies openness, communication, and accountability. Transparency is operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed. For example, a cashier making change at a point of sale by segregating a customer’s large bills, counting up from the sale amount, and placing the change on the counter in such a way as to invite the customer to verify the amount of change demonstrates transparency.

This is certainly a workable definition, but for this post, I will define it as the creation of a culture and an attitude within an organization such that anyone interested can easily examine and otherwise critique the inner workings of the organization.

As I stated in the original post, transparency should be the first measure of government. What does this mean?

  1. Reasonable requests for information will be granted, no questions asked. As long as an information request can be identified as reasonable and not putting the recipient or provider of that information at undue risk, that information should be provided without requiring knowledge of how that information will be used. This excludes information that is sensitive or that could harm others by having it released.
  2. Clear and unassailable standards for the release of information will be provided. Both the providers of information and those who request that information should be able to determine, without having to dig through pages of text, whether their request will be granted or denied. The rules for what information will be provided when should be provided in plain, easy-to-understand English. A clear process for appealing information release decisions will be provided.
  3. The relationships between different pieces of data will be clearly identified when revealing the relationships between data objects does not create a harmful situation. Users should be able to tell at a high level where information came from and how information is used by others that consume that information. These relationships need not be stated in any great detail except in cases where that detail is a significant component of the data itself. Phrases like “this data is used by the Department of Redundancy Department to determine eligibility for certain programs” are acceptable so long as a more precise level of detail is not needed to make the usage of that data clear.
  4. Information owners shall be identified when appropriate. The people that own the information provided should be identified in case the information needs to be corrected or otherwise revised. This identification should, at minimum, identify an office and an e-mail address or phone number, though greater detail can be provided as needed.

This all covers external information shared with citizens, but such measures can actually improve the operation of government. Knowledge of who owns what makes it easier to interact between government systems. A clear statement of the relationship between data elements – even if those relationships cannot be publicly revealed – serves to improve understanding of how information is used by systems.

How can technology be used to improve transparency? Much of the data that can be revealed and the relationships between those pieces of data can be served electronically without human intervention. Indeed, many – if not all – of the items listed above can be satisfied using web sites.

But we must not also rule out the possibility that people cannot directly access online resources or do not have a sufficient understanding of the field to know exactly what questions to ask in order to get the information they want or need. Thus, multiple methods of getting this information should be provided, and stewards that are familiar enough with the domain should be able to guide users to what they need, again, without needing to know about why that information is required.

Why do I put such an emphasis on not needing to know the usage context of information, even though this context can be useful to the organization? Government data and information operates very differently than if the same data were owned by private entities; by definition, it belongs to the people. Government should not need to know how the people they serve will use it because they are stewards of that information for the very people making the request for it.

[1], retrieved January 19, 2013. Return to Post

Three Words for 2013

Chris Brogan put together a post by the same title, and has apparently done so for several years; I figure, “hey, it’s worth a shot!”.

Think of three words that sum up what you want to work actionably on changing/improving in the coming year. [. . .] The idea is to look deeper than a single goal and try to give you an entire mindset to contemplate. The Heath Brothers in their book, Switch, talked about needing three elements to bring about change: a rider (your plans and intents), the elephant (what your mood will do no matter what your plans say), and the path (the environment within which you intend to implement those changes). The concept of the three words is like the path. Think of a word that gives you the HUGE picture, not the small picture.

Here’s my choices. I mostly focused on professional goals rather than personal ones in my descriptions, though these can apply equally to each:

Take what is well-established and elevate it to the next level. Look at what is around me and use the materials I have to turn it into something more usable and efficient. Create an environment where reinvention is the norm, and expected.

Irony is being hearing impaired, knowing the value and the necessity of truly listening to people, but not consistently putting that to practice and making a personal, conscious effort to make sure that needs are heard and understood. This could be a permanent word for me, since it will never be perfect or quite right. However, this year, I want to practice, specifically, listening to users and listening to major stakeholders.

This particular word selection is a bit of a battle between “Unreserved” and “Outspoken”. There was an article in Network World recently that resonated with me:

Jason Clark, Chief Security and Strategy Officer for Websense

Advice: “If you are not putting your job on the line, you are not doing your job.”

When I first started my security career, one of my early mentors stressed the importance of voicing my opinion. This especially applies in the security industry, where we have to stay ahead of the bad guys. It proved to be an important foundation for my career and has contributed to my continued success.

I was employed by a company that acquired part of another very large company. During the acquisition, I had to stand up to the other CIO when we disagreed on how to merge the two businesses from a security perspective. The other CIO wanted us to take a substantial amount of risk. I stood my ground. He said that my company needed the deal more than his company — and escalated the issue to my CEO.

Next thing I know, my CEO is talking to the other CEO, and both my CEO and CIO backed my strategy. I was initially worried that I rocked the boat. In the end, I was praised for standing my ground.

I learned that to do your job, you have to stand up for what you believe in — even if it’s an unpopular decision. Just make sure it’s always aligned with your company’s morals, needs and strategy.

— “IT pros reveal the best career advice they ever received”
Network World

This dovetails well with what I’ve been trying to do in my work life – push what can sometimes be an unpopular opinion or question because I want to be sure that the business has that question answered or that opinion registered so that it can perform its work. This is particularly true in my product management work, where I try to push the edges of the application out further in order to provide users with a more robust and data-rich environment to work in.

I will try to review this regularly; these are not necessarily fixed words, either. The word or the rationale may shift slightly over the year.

Government Experience Design

Disclaimer: As I work for the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, this posting does not reflect the opinions of that office or the Washington State judiciary. I speak here as a private citizen interested in improving the way government functions. Nothing here implies or otherwise suggests the support of my employer or of the Washington State judicial branch.

User experience is one of those fields where it’s easy to have things overhyped. There are enough buzzwords floating around the business world that losing track of what the discipline actually focuses on is a trap easily tripped. There are those that even argue that a laser-like focus on the user neglects other, just as important, aspects of business.

But at its core, user experience is a philosophy. It’s the idea that if you design software for its users and you listen to the users input and actively solicit that input, then respond accordingly by tweaking software somehow, you’re doing it right. However, user experience encompasses so much more than just software. As of late, this has been called cross-channel user experience design: the idea that you design for how the user interacts with companies across approaches, whether digital, in-person or in-store, via print media, or via other approaches that haven’t even been discovered yet. To offer up an extremely dumbed-down example, if I find a product on REI’s web site, I should be able to find that product in stores and be able to use the information I found online to my advantage. It’s about how we design the transitions between those mediums to ensure a cohesive experience for the user of that information.

This is not what I want to talk about today, though it is extremely closely related.

It surprises me that, in a quick Google search, the phrase "government experience design" does not readily appear[1]. Think about this. We interact with government on a day-to-day basis. We drive on roads maintained by the government, we pay for utility services that are sometimes provided by the government (municipal or county government, typically). We go to courts, the judiciary branch of government, to resolve disputes and determine matters of law.

But what do I mean, exactly? If "user experience design" is the idea of designing how a user interacts with something, is "government experience design" the idea of designing how a government interacts with something? Well, yes and no. Absolutely, we want to think about how government interacts with those it represents. We also want to think about how its constituents interact with government. This is something that has been discussed, debated, batted back and forth for centuries without such a label. So why am I bringing it up now?

In short, government needs to wake up a bit. We’re taking steps in the right direction – the White House has a site where users can directly petition the White House for responses on issues, whether that be pardoning people for their crimes or asking that we build our own Death Star (yes, really). We pay utility bills online, we can pay traffic tickets online, we can watch how government works online, we can do all these things. All these things are great. There’s more on the list that I don’t even begin to mention.

Here’s some of what’s missing:

  1. Transparency. While we can file for Freedom of Information Act requests to see what government is doing, in a lot of cases, we shouldn’t have to do so. Transparency should be the first measure of government. If I want to know what’s going on (within reason), I should be able to find out. This should not involve having to talk to multiple people to find out something because the relationships between government data at the different levels are not well-defined.
  2. Listening. I’m not talking about the politicians explicitly here; I’m talking about government’s ability to gather input from its citizens and react to it in a timely and effective manner in a way that makes citizens feel well-represented, even if their requests are denied. You could call this "civility"; the art of recognizing someone’s needs and then making a clear case for why something will or will not be done such that the original request is respected and not ignored.
  3. Adaptability. Governments are well-harried for being full of red tape in a lot of circumstances. They are slow to adapt, slow to understand, slow to do anything asked of it because things get bogged down in political discussions or the ebb and flow of the raft of supporting mechanisms within government itself. Any cursory glance at the comments thread of a news article about political decisions will find at least one comment to the effect of "why wasn’t this done sooner, like, five years ago when the problem first reared its ugly head?".
  4. Open-Source. This is a subset of transparency; I call it out separately here because it warrants a bit further explanation. The open source software movement is the idea that, by publishing the source code of a particular piece of software, that software will become stronger because many eyeballs are reading that source code and thinking of improvements and finding security flaws. This philosophy is easily extensible into the government domain; what would it be like if we could crack open the source code of government programs (once again, within reason) and help to find flaws in logic and computation? What if citizens could save governments money because they fixed bugs?

    The idea extends beyond software as well, to being able to see how legislation evolves over time – imagine being able to see the original draft of a piece of legislation, then how that legislation was changed, with each legislator’s change listed clearly for all to see.

As an information manager and software developer, I look at the above, and my first instinct (to the surprise of none) is "throw some software at it!"

Well, actually, that’s not quite right: it’s more like "throw some software at it thoughtfully!"

How can we change government so that it utilizes computers and technology in a way that it increases the ability of government to both represent its constituents and increase the ability of citizens to feel represented? How can we improve the ability of a citizen to interact with government across multiple channels, physical, digital, and otherwise? Code for America – a sort of Teach for America for geeks – is an excellent start, doing excellent work. But that change should not have to come from nonprofits. Certainly, nonprofits and for-profit entities have great opportunities here, but government itself needs to work on these issues as well. As a civil servant, this is the question that I work with on a daily basis: how do I make it easier for government to work? This is the genesis of this post.

And it’s an open question I hope to continue to work with and write about. I do not imply that there are not excellent minds thinking and working on these very questions daily at all levels of government everywhere; but we must be conscious of the issues and deliberate and open in our discussion.

Footnote 1: There is a book that I have yet to pick up as of this writing: Elizabeth Buie’s Usability in Government Systems: User Experience Design for Citizens and Public Servants, ISBN-13 978-0123910639, that talks about user experience design in the context of government systems. Return to Post