Stop talking about government

Government puts the solution first; governance puts people first.

Once upon a time, I was a frequent guest of the Federal Register web site. The Federal Register is the daily record of government. It is home to presidential documents, new rules, proposed rules, hearings, rule changes, meetings — just about anything you could want to know about the daily sausage-making of the world’s largest purchaser of goods and services. In other words, it’s a super fun read.

The United States Capitol Building at dusk. It’s time we moved from the solutions-centered language of government to the human-centered language of governance. (Source)

I was a heavy user of the site a little over a decade ago. Back then, I was a researcher for Congressional Quarterly (now, CQ Roll Call). If you weren’t a lobbyist, congressional staffer or a researcher, you probably didn’t even know the Federal Register site existed. I became acquainted with the resource early, thanks to a congressional internship in high school, so my learning curve wasn’t terrible when I got to CQ, but it was still steep.

The Federal Register site (and pretty much the entire .gov ecosystem) was a sea of all but impossible to search PDFs during my time at CQ and later at FactCheck.org. Let’s just say that, while I loved my work, time spent searching the Federal Register and the THOMAS database (now Congress.gov) was about as enjoyable as watching paint dry. Think long hours of searching and scanning for a data point or line item. I spent hours hoping I was in the vicinity of the right county that housed the ballpark wherein was located the needle I desperately needed to find.

Both the Federal Register and THOMAS database, among many other government sites, have undergone a redesign since then. My glasses prescription has also gone up a few ticks. Documents on the Federal Register site are in text, PDF and xml format. There are live announcements of new entries, and the casual visitor can drop in and come away knowing what the Federal Register is and why it matters. When the re-design was announced back in 2010, the new site was described by then-managing editor Michael White as “…USA.gov meets USA Today.”

It’s not quite USA Today, but it’s definitely better than I remembered it and a reflection of a movement that has been well underway in government — a movement towards human-centered design.

Empathizing with Uncle Sam

I returned to Washington, D.C. to bring what I learned about design thinking at the Stanford d.school to bear not only on government but its surrounding ecosystem. My goal is to help people in and around government navigate ambiguity, synthesize large amounts of information and clearly communicate complex ideas quickly to their most important customer: the American people. I want to help shorten the path between raw data (the old Register site) and meaning (the new site). That means meeting needs rather than fulfilling wants. The old Federal Register site, for example, fulfilled the want of making the data publicly available online. The new site fulfills the need of making that data meaningful to those who encounter it.

…Anyone approaching government from the outside has as much to learn as they do to share about the application of design thinking towards improving governance.

That being said, much as the Federal Register site has changed, government overall changed too. Design thinking is no longer new to government, and many civil servants have done remarkable work to create a common design language as well as human-centered processes, methods and modes that work within and across agencies and departments.

There’s the internal design and creative problem-solving arm 18F, and I’ve personally met with civil servants who have a stronger prototyping and synthesis muscle than their corporate counterparts. They have built remarkable creative strength by working through bureaucratic resistance and under the weight of public scrutiny.

That means anyone approaching government from the outside has as much to learn as they do to share about the application of design thinking towards improving governance.

That’s right, I said governance, not government.

Government is solution-centered. Governance is human-centered.

The move from government to governance means a shift away from focusing on the body of government and towards the act of governing. It inherently means a focus away from products and services and more so towards people and relationships.

Where government is a focus on the solutions generated, governance is a focus on the process, opportunities, insights and, most importantly, people the government seeks to serve. Government is solution-centered. Governance is human-centered.

This is where the surrounding ecosystem comes into play. Much as government has changed to incorporate human-centered design, so must the way we talk about it. The transition requires the incorporation of a more human-centered vocabulary for all of the organizations and institutions that work to track and study legislative, executive and judicial work. This includes news organizations, think tanks and the policy, political science, international relations and government departments within academic institutions.

Where government is a focus on the solutions generated, governance is a focus on the process, opportunities, insights and, most importantly, people the government seeks to serve.

Design thinking is being adopted in a variety of industries. The IT industry is adopting it as they navigate the “digital transformation”. Education, health care, food production, energy, pharmaceuticals — nearly every sector of the economy is exploring design thinking as a means by which to tackle complex problems. The federal government is no different, and that means the way we analyze, study and talk about it needs to change too. So, let’s stop talking about government and solutions and, instead, talk about governance and people.


I’m eager to work with others to learn more about how design thinking is playing a role in and around governance and public policy. So, if you’re of a like mind, please share your story with me and tap on that little heart.

If you’re interested in learning and reading more about design thinking in policy, media and professional development, sign up for my newsletter ‘E is for everything’.