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