Let’s design a better relationship with Government

Isaac Wang
Mar 14 · 5 min read

Our movement begins with a single question: What is our relationship with government?

When I explore the different personal relationships in my life — wife, son, parents, God, friends, community — I find a recurring theme:

Successful relationships require a model built on RECIPROCATED LOVE.

Sustainable, healthy relationships are also rarely transactional correspondences.

If we only call our parents when we need money,

If we only reach out to friends when we need favors,

If we only pray to God when we need miracles,

It’s probably not a healthy relationship.

The best relationships are ones where both sides get to know each other and ENGAGE with each other.

I am deeply concerned about our relationship with government in this country.

Our status quo is: I begrudgingly pay taxes and only interact with government when absolutely necessary.

Our aspiration is: I maintain stewardship of my community, organize for causes I care about, and build the future I wish to see.

If our social contract with government is “I pay taxes; therefore, I demand effective government”, then we’re missing the point.

Governments are not Vending Machines.

Elected officials should get to know their people, and people should pass their concerns to their elected officials. This is done through civic engagement.

Input from citizens is used by elected officials to make better policy.

In tech, this concept is known as Feedback Loops. We take user input and go through rapidly iterative processes of: Design, Build, Test, Learn…repeat…

In the activist world, we know this as: SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER.

Speaking the truth to the people in power

But how do we get there?

After spending a lot of time talking to people, I’ve realized:

  1. Most people want to engage with government, but they don’t know how.
  2. Most elected officials want to get constructive feedback from citizens, but they don’t know how.

The lazy person’s analysis is that our society is apathetic, and our culture is to blame.

But as a designer of both physical and digital environments, I can tell you that most behavior is a function of design.

Observe the difference between driving on a road with a 65 mph speed limit sign versus driving on a narrower road.

I travel frequently from San Diego to Honolulu for the Navy, and I notice an immediate difference while driving.

In SD, people are flooring it on the freeway; whereas in Honolulu, people are not flooring it on the freeway. In fact, it’s difficult to go above the speed limit on the H-1. From talking to Hawaiians, few would argue that Hawaiians are better drivers than Californians. Hawaiians drive slower on the freeways because the lanes are much narrower, not because of a speed limit sign. It’s a function of design. Urban designers across America have also moved towards skinnier streets within neighborhoods, because skinnier streets encourage cautious driving.

You encourage behavior through design, not signage. If you want people to use public spaces, build seating and shade. If you want people use your website, make the user interface intuitive. Don’t send screenshots of how to get to the end destination.

My core argument is that “civic engagement” is a function of design.

  1. The design of our Physical infrastructure
  2. The design of our Digital infrastructure
  3. The design of our Civic infrastructure

Physical Infrastructure

Is it a surprise that cities around the nation are suffering from a lack of civic engagement? Many residents do not feel connected to their city and do not see engagement as a priority.

How do we design an urbanization strategy that encourages average residents to participate in creating a socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable urban form?

We now know that the design of our buildings, streets, and neighborhoods has a profound effect on our behavior in fostering civic engagement.

It starts with increasing the likelihood of unplanned interactions with diverse groups of people through mixed land-use, mixed income neighborhoods, and mixed modes of transit.

I recommend checking out the Center for Active Design’s Design Guidelines for Robust Engagement, which outlines practical and evidence-based design strategies that practitioners can use to encourage participation, stewardship and a collective civic identity among residents.

Digital Infrastructure

Is it a surprise that we often use commercial websites and services to help us navigate complex online government processes? I use digital products to help fill out taxes, retrieve real estate information, and find out details about items that are public but remarkably difficult to find on a government website.

How do we leverage digital modernization of government to improve community engagement and reinforce our feedback loops? It starts with delivering responsive digital environments that foster accessible, pleasant, and efficient interactions.

I recommend checking out the U.S. Web Design System for designing better web environments for the American public. For the policy wonks out there frustrated by software procurement, I also recommend checking out the TechFAR Hub Handbook for best practices in digital services acquisition. Finally, if you want a comprehensive yet simple guide on how to improve digital services for government, there is the Digital Services Playbook.

Civic Infrastructure

Is it a surprise that people don’t participate in community planning groups or give public comment at City Council? Local government institutions often hold meetings during working hours on a weekday and provide no effective channel for outreach. Our design for community input is broken, and it fundamentally doesn’t weigh community interests appropriately.

I can say with absolute metaphysical certainty that most people do not even know the avenues for influencing legislation at the local level.

How do we create a civic landscape that prioritizes citizen feedback loops? It starts with creating laws that prevent special interests and corporate money from disproportionately influencing both elections and policy making. But it also requires creating the capacity for grassroots organizing and changing the equation of how elected officials weigh the interests of constituents. We have to fix the mechanics of Democracy itself.

I recommend checking out organizations like Represent.Us and Common Cause, who are working at all level of government to fix issues surrounding gerrymandering, voter suppression, ethics and accountability, and campaign finance laws. Elections are the core feedback loops of Democracy, and they have to function properly before we can expect community and grassroots organizing to impact the decision-making of elected officials.

Asking for a cultural change in civic engagement is much less effective than designing for civic engagement.

Our current relationship with local government is broken. Right now, there’s little to no intentional design within San Diego to activate civic engagement and bolster the feedback loops of democracy.

I’ve outlined a corrective framework to fix it.

But I’m going to need your help.

Citizen-centric design is a movement that requires people like you.

In order to fundamentally transform our relationship, we have to design for civic engagement to achieve a true PARTICIPATORY GOVERNMENT.

Isaac Wang

Written by

Candidate for San Diego City Council D5: Visit www.isaac.vote // Paid for by Isaac Wang for City Council 2020 FPPC ID# 1416799

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