Post-Shutdown Reflection: Creating Better Feedback Loops between Government and Citizens

The U.S. government is up and operating again after a 16-day shutdown. Watching your country— or really, a few extreme members of Congress— flirt with economic catastrophe from abroad is not a pleasant experience. I’d prefer not to repeat it. What many people don’t realize is that the shutdown put a temporary halt to lots of innovative and interesting work that often flies under the radar, but has the potential to help build a more effective, adaptable and responsive government. (Case in point: the U.S. Department of Labor’s new Pay for Success grants, announced shortly before most of the agency’s workers were furloughed.)

This seems like an appropriate time to start a blog focused on bringing better design to the public and social sectors. Given the state of affairs in Washington, D.C. over the past few weeks—where the loud voices of a few overwhelmed the more reasonable voices of many—I think it’s appropriate to begin with the topic of the federal government and better citizen feedback.

We all know that we’re living in a new world where social media and other technologies allow for rapid feedback – getting immediate reactions to our every thought on facebook, Twitter and Tumblr is changing how we interact with the world and our expectations about how public and private sector institutions should engage with us.  Governments across the world are responding to these changing attitudes through a range of initiatives designed to allow citizens to build popular support for issues that they care about. At We the People, citizens have offered petitions on issues as diverse as gay marriage, immigration, and Death Stars.  In Germany, citizens can ask questions of Chancellor Merkel and receive responses on a platform at DirektzurKanzlerin (Direct to the Chancellor). Providing information to the public and responding to questions and concerns is a critical function of a responsive and open government, but to build a more effective and adaptive public sector, federal agencies need to go a step further – they need to figure out how to better incorporate rapid and continual citizen feedback into the design and implementation of programs and strategies.

Why should governments incorporate regular citizen feedback into the design and implementation of programs? Research suggests that the collective intelligence of the crowd (e.g., the service providers designing a program, the researchers evaluating it, and the adults and youth receiving services) is smarter than a small group of experts (even the smartest experts). Harnessing this collective knowledge—particularly in the context of an initial testing (or prototyping) phase— could lead to better early program design. Many of the most effective social programs then continue to engage with stakeholders throughout implementation, combining that feedback with ongoing analysis of outcomes to refine their models. We often think of innovation in terms of big ideas and disruptive technologies, but ongoing feedback is a critical part of a different and powerful kind of innovation—innovation as process (or incremental innovation).  (For an overview of the idea of innovation as process, try this article by Profs. Johanna Mair and Christian Seelos.)

This isn’t a radical or new idea. Successful businesses routinely prototype products before bringing them to market and update them based on customer feedback. In principle, there’s no reason why the government can’t do the same thing. But in reality, there are barriers.

First, there are (initially well-intentioned) laws that make creating ongoing feedback loops really difficult. If you’ve never worked for or with the U.S. federal government, you may not have heard of the Paperwork Reduction Act. It’s a law that governs what type of information federal agencies can gather from individuals and organizations and how they may do it. Clay Johnson, a former White House Fellow, does an excellent job in this podcast explaining why it needs to be rethought. Secondly, institutional culture and practices can get in the way. I don’t want to imply that government officials never talk to or listen to stakeholders. Of course, they do. However, in my experience, officials too often rely on a relatively small circle of recognized experts. They had excellent ideas, but I often wondered whether there were other different and promising ideas—perhaps from social workers who have gathered insights from years of on-the-ground work or youth who were served by a program and have ideas about how it could work better. This brings me to my final point— the federal government needs to get better at adopting technology that allows agencies to tap into a broader range of voices. (A task made more difficult by the Paperwork Reduction Act—you really should listen to that podcast.)

The enabling technology exists, and initiatives—particularly at the state and local level— are exploring how to better involve citizens in the design of programs. This report from IBM and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium details a range of strategies—and associated projects—that could allow for effective citizen engagement.  All Our Ideas, an open source tool for collecting citizen feedback on ideas or projects in a dynamic way, has been used in a planning project in New York City. Brazil used a similar model to engage citizens in the design of public health programs. The Obama Administration has sought to foster outside engagement in problem solving through initiatives like Challenge.gov. The challenge comes in building on initiatives like these, and adopting crowdsourcing and citizen feedback as a normal part of the business of federal agencies.

In future posts, I look forward to exploring more examples of how citizen and stakeholder feedback can be effectively used to inform program design and development—at all levels of government and in the social sector. Below are some questions I plan to explore on this blog—and because those of you in the crowd know better than me, I’d appreciate your help in answering them:

  • What are the most effective models for incorporating citizen feedback into the design of social programs? How did those models overcome barriers to tapping into the wisdom of the crowd (whether legal, cultural or otherwise)?
  • What are some examples of programs that failed due to a lack of feedback? How might things have turned out differently if citizens were more actively engaged?
  • How could experiences with citizen feedback in other countries inform U.S. domestic policy?

Thanks for reading my blog, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.