Why is it that when a policy results in the opposite outcome from the desired one, blame is implicitly placed upon the ‘users’ of the service not the designers?
Reading this weeks’ Economist special report on e-government and then reading Will Davies’ piece on the apparent failures of the British top-up fee scheme makes for a telling account of how service design should have a much clearer role in government practice. With public services and benefits, there is an inherent problem of not only spending money on things like ‘openness,’ increased civic empowerment and choice, but in communicating this openness, ensuring that it actually becomes known to the general public.
In the case of universities’ top-up fees, the problem has been, as Will writes, to make the actual benefits of the system clear to students from less well-off backgrounds. Although he implies there is actually not much in the way of ideology behind them, to be more critical of top-up fees one must see them against the New Labour rationale which spawned them: They assume that amassing significant debt is a natural state of affairs for graduates entering the workforce. They also assume, like Will writes, a kind of ‘rational choice’ economic man, weighing the benefits of choosing for example an arts education against an engineering one, as if these options were purely economical. Further, they assume that there is transparency in that graduates are now increasingly paying for their own education rather than the general public, and that low income students can have fees waived or repayments postponed — essentially a progressive, leftist idea, which has however been vehemently attacked by student unions and the like.
The problem here is doubtlessly one of communication, of designing a service that is user-oriented and transparent. The ideological dimension suddenly creeps back, because if and when the New Labour technocrats start blaming the public for not grasping the intricacies of this system, the blame will rightly be on them — the designers — not on the users.
As figures show, the UK government has been good at pouring money on e-government / public access initiatives — the only problem being that this hasn’t improved the actual openness and accessibility in real terms. My own country, Sweden, has in comparison managed to couple similarly heavy investments with an actual increase in civic uptake of IT-mediated gateways to government resources.
The problem is ultimately one of approach, not one of resources. Nick Marsh recently blogged a telling quote from Geoff Mulgan, Director of the Young Foundation:
We believe that the time is ripe for a radical change to how we do service and how we think about it. We lack any institutions truly committed to service – to understanding it, promoting it, cultivating it.
In fact, this lack of service-oriented thinking in government is outrageous, when realizing that public sector innovation strives primarily towards creating public value: it is in the interest of government that we all make rational choices, it is not just about luring individuals onto your own scheme or business idea. The very concept of nurturing a commons is vital to government, and should not remain a woolly hyperbole exclusive to the Web 2.0 acolytes.
Wanted: A genuine shift in mindset! The tools, the knowledge and the money already exist.