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

The Fog Dissolves

“…careful the morning lest it wake from slumber the city half-encumbered by the morning mist…”

— John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, though it has not been a while since I have blogged; my silence here was by choice. I felt, for a while, that I had little to share. Of course, this was never true. It merely represented the same funk all writers – or, at least, all those who claim to be writers – go through. Not writer’s block, merely disinterest. I did not take the time to distill the vapor of my thoughts into something more coherent.

In short, the mists shrouded this space; the city – if literary license will grant me a brief nod and a blog can be called a city of works – slumbered. Indeed, it is still half-encumbered by these morning mists, not entirely vibrant, not entirely self-aware. It will require some effort and investment on the part of its ownership – me – to decide that it will again awaken, bustling with promise.

In the silence, many things changed. I have grown and moved again, from the Tri-Cities of Washington to my undergraduate stomping grounds of Olympia, Washington. I now work for the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts as a Systems Integrator, basically a fancy way of saying that I try to make systems that work (less integration, really, and more function). The more proper term would be “Software Developer” or “Web Developer”.

Somehow I haven’t quite gotten away from government, though my governmental involvement has varied. I have served public education institutions in Washington State, serving out my masters’ degree internship at what was then the Washington State Department of Information Services (since split into the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services and Washington State Consolidated Technology Services). I then moved to the federal level as an employee of a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy, Battelle, which manages Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. I have now returned to Olympia to work with the judiciary branch.

I cannot promise you, reader, that this awakening will last; indeed, this may be nothing more than the equivalent of one getting up from bed long enough to get a drink of water. I would hope, though, that this stretches out longer: that we walk downstairs together, get a cup of coffee, and discuss the events of the day over breakfast.

I stretch the metaphor, but metaphors are nothing if they cannot brush off the wisps of meaning and metamorphose into something else, as the fog will lift to reveal new days.