Can we design services for a more participative society?

Scope of civic passport

What if we defined the purpose of digital public services as being to build a more participative relationship with the public? If we are seeing the emergence of the network society then don’t we have to?

One of the reasons I believe that you can’t design an effective digital strategy without thinking about 21st century citizens and the implications of the emergence of the network society is because eventually you will contradict yourself. For example take this set of statements:

  • “We want the customer to have a friction free experience of our service”
  • “We want residents to report local incidents and repairs so that we can target resources”
  • “We want the resident to take a more active role in their local place and co-produce local services with us”
  • “We want the citizen to participate in local decision making”

Is getting rid of someone as quickly as possible the best way of building a more profound relationship? Or more fundamentally – is treating someone like a customer likely to make them act like a citizen? I don’t think so.

If we frame the purpose of a public sector digital mission to be to create a more participative (and democratic) relationship with the public rather than simply to treat us all of consumers of services then I think we can see all of these statements as an opportunity for civic participation and a chance to build a different kind of relationship. Great customer services and simple citizen reporting tools could therefore be seen as not just a way of reducing costs and managing demand but are also a way in to the process of building a different social contract with the public.

In order to do this we will probably need to move beyond the idea of the single view of the customer and think about how our systems and data will look if we treat the citizen as a partner in the process of delivering and shaping services. This is quite a big ask so I am looking for opportunities to sneak up on this.

How does digital identity help?
At the moment very few government organisations are really set up to deal with the fact that in the 21st Century networked individuals operate as part of a system and that their roles as customers, residents and citizens have collapsed and merged – as indeed have their roles as carer’s, service users, staff and a myriad of other things. This has of course always been true but one of the consequences of living a life online is that we have some very messy compromises currently being made around how we can choose to present ourselves. I think that reframing the purpose of identity within a digital strategy to be the foundation on which we build a different kind of relationship going forward can help drive the development of tools which are better able to support digital citizens as well as reducing costs in transactions.

There are other and I think more profound reasons for thinking more carefully about digital identity – Anonymity breeds bad behaviour online and a lack of a defensible personal digital identity makes it easier for 3rd parties to harvest our data.

I also think that if we are really going to deliver on the democratic promise of the internet then we need to give people control of their identity – more on that on this post on democratic infrastructure.

Can’t I just have an app?
All of the statements listed above have at some point been delivered as an app in the public sector – what if we were instead to see these as a connected family of applications which provided the networked citizen with a connected set of tools – all of which are aimed at helping that citizen to have agency and voice within their community and wider society?

There are already two obvious piece of infrastructure to experiment with this idea; i) library cards (more on this on this post as libraries as civic infrastructure) ii) Citizen reporting apps such like fix my street.

In order to preempt the outage from the user centred design tribe – I am not saying that you create apps which try and do all of these things but instead that we think about how these experiences could be better linked.  I have been looking at the linkage being some kind of civic passport (based on the participation passport idea from NHS Citizen) though I am not sure the language is right – it needs testing.

But why?
Anyone who reads this blog probably knows that I spend a lot of time thinking about how we build technology which designs democracy in from the start rather than bolting it on at the end – I’m interested in how we design tools which make it more likely government does things with people not to people. To do this you need to find relevant points of entry in the current ways of doing things and build out from there.  This requires us to rethink the idea of applications (like the reporting app) being an extension of the service and think about how that service could benefit from more active participation by citizens – you need to flip the model.

But returning to the reference to the network society at the beginning – I have been mulling over the way in which platform thinking has been taking hold as a technology ‘play’. Government as a platform is one incarnation, collaborative consumption another but you can see the commercial world is increasingly focused on the wider implications of platform strategies (the latest edition of HBR has a good analysis article if you are interested).

All of these platform strategies really boil down to creating spaces where active individuals can connect, interact and create – I don’t think government should consider digital services to be different to this if our goal is a more participatory relationship with the public.

To make this come to life we need to start thinking about what digital citizenship really looks like when its enactment comes about as a series of small localised transactions across a number of these platforms – a blurring of of civic and consumer rights perhaps.

I’m currently looking at opportunities to try out some of the ideas in here – firstly by exploring how you could enrich a digital library card and link it to opportunities for micro volunteering and also at the art of the possible with respect to some of these reporting apps. In both these examples I’ll also be seeing how we can build in feedback loops which move towards more democratic engagement – without overloading the interactions and making any solution bloated.  Those feedback loops are essential as this is the opportunity to make these services participatory in a democratic sense and not just transactional.

Designing democracy into platforms will have to be built from the individual outwards – I like the pragmatism of finding pre-existing transactions and making them a bit more democratic rather than building a new civic platform from scratch.

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