A version of this post originally appeared on Francis J. Pedraza’s blog. It’s republished with permission.
It’s time for a new social contract.
Can you remember the last time government made you happy?
Can you remember the last time government made you angry or sad?
Oh, your last pay check.
Where’s all that money going? When will you ever see a return on that investment?
Every day, hundreds of millions use Google search. Ever reflect on this? An immense volume of digital information, organized and made “universally accessible and useful” through a single search bar. Count up the words on Google’s homepage: only 30. And yet it opens the whole world for us – a global portal to expanding knowledge, friends, maps, videos, news, mail, images, books, music and more. And it’s free.
Look, if two Stanford students managed to create something so useful in just 13 years, how come our nation can’t get its house in order? Go to the government’s website, usa.gov, or look at ny.gov, which is even worse.
Every time I take the NYC subway, I’m amazed by the impression that everyone’s got a high-tech device. It defies stereotypes – young, old, rich, poor – we’ve nearly all managed to get our hands on an iPod, MacBook, Droid, or whatever. It’s ubiquitous. Ten years ago, no-way. What that tells me as a casual observer is that our culture has learned a new language.
The phenomenon has reached an exciting stage: it’s both branching out and converging, all at once. We’re finding new applications for technology, from an infant swiping ABCs on an iPad, to an iPhone being adopted as a medical tool by doctors in Africa. The flip side is that this proliferation of diverse applications is being consolidated onto just a handful of devices. Consumer products, paired with the Internet, have become an intuitive interface for interacting with all aspects of life.
How might we tap into these suggestive lessons from daily experience with the Internet and consumer technology to transform government?
Let’s imagine Steve Jobs as President of the United States
Three things would change. I’d bet a round of drinks he would …
1. Frame everything around the user experience.
Citizens are users, and the government delivers services. Guess what? Since World War II, the basic framework of our bureaucracy hasn’t changed, just grown on rotting foundations. Now it’s a tangled, clumsy, wobbling mass of weeds. President Jobs would restore a sense of purpose by reorienting the whole thing around people. Human-centered government begins with insisting on only releasing services that people will be irresistibly drawn to use and love. To get there, begin with keen observation. Look for super-normal actions and listen to what people don’t say; qualitative insights into people’s everyday lives give us the best clues to their needs and design solutions.
2. Less is more.
President Jobs would be good at saying “no.” The biggest priority is restoring priorities, the government tries to do too much. There are too many programs competing for budget and attention. Few have done users much good so far. Few are worth putting our nation in debt to have. By focusing on one big opportunity at a time, we’ll discover government’s competitive advantage. There are only a very few things the private sector can’t do better than the public, so that’s what all the tax dollars should go toward. Simple is best.
3. Design for sustainable innovation.
Society changes dynamically, so what’s up with static government? It responds so slowly, even in crisis – and that’s got to change. Design thinkers spend lots of time perfecting the innovation process. It’s an art, and it takes leaders who can get other people to embrace creative culture. Crowd-sourcing splits the atom. It releases innovation at scale. That’s why Facebook, Apple, and Google have been so successful. They’ve built stages for the rest of the world to play on. It’s all about designing a structured platform that provides an irresistible opportunity to the worldwide creative community to develop further.
For example, what if the IRS ran a competition based on this question: How might we simplify the tax code from 44,000 pages to 10 pages or less? Let the people vote on a mini-site. Winning submissions get voted on in Congress and the winner gets to meet the President. Perhaps one day soon, we could be offered a choice of tax systems – the old one, or the new design!
As you can see, President Jobs would be so unpopular in DC. A bureaucrat’s worst nightmare: playing hack-and-slash with programs and departments, eliminating waste and fixing strategic mis-allocations of the people’s resources. With federal employees getting laid off, congressmen losing pet projects, and lobbyists losing their client’s pet privileges and special deals, there would be a bi-partisan outcry.
No big deal, because a great communicator would know how to win the crowd and sell the vision. The State of the Union address, with all its obsolete television-era pomp and circumstance, would be replaced by a quarterly keynote presentation. President Jobs would never, ever come empty-handed. Empty rhetoric isn’t his thing. He’s always got a fundamental innovation to unveil or big news to announce, and he never leaves without leaving an extra surprise. Rumor has it that this time, it’s a usa.gov redesign and a dot.gov iPhone App launch.
Using technology as a frame of reference, you may see that there’s an amazing amount of potential for us to transform government. Design thinking transcends party lines, old dogmas, and entrenched interest groups. Things may look pretty glum now, but this is America, and there’s always a way. I am optimistic, because sooner or later, the same forces that have touched all of our lives through consumer markets and the Internet will give us Government 2.0.
Our society is waiting, and our political landscape is ripe, for a political figure to speak the new language. The premises outlined above form the basis of a platform for a small, focused, innovative, and human-centered government.
It’s time for a new social contract. Demand it.