Local democracy experiments: Some design principles (alpha)

Over at Notwestminster HQ we've been setting up some design experiments for local democracy.

This would be a good moment to thank the fine folk at the Centre for Public Scrutiny who have made this part of their work programme for the next few months.

Listed below is a first draft of some design principles for this work. It builds on and incorporates the GDS design principles and the ideas of notwestminster participants (including Perry’s comment on my blog post here). It also reflects that this is intended to be an academic exercise (in the research sense, not the pointless one).

I'm looking for feedback if you have any.

1. Design for citizens not customers

User needs are different when applied to citizens. Starting with ‘citizens at the centre’ means that the Council may not necessarily be hosting the experiment (although it often will be). Where the council is involved the assumption is that organisational behaviours and cultures will need to change in response to citizen needs — not the other way round. Citizens at the centre also means thinking about all of the organisations and groups that might be involved.

2. Clear thinking from the start

Robust research and effective design needs a clear statement of what the problem is, the assumptions being made, hypotheses and outcomes. Writing things down succinctly can be a challenge but is worth the time spent — it ensures that everyone is on the same page, that the work can follow logically and that lessons can be easily shared.

3. Every context is different — do the research

Before starting an experiment its important to understand the organisational and the citizen needs and the environment in which the intervention is taking place. This will not only provide vital information for the design process but, should the experiment be replicated elsewhere, help researchers to understand what works in what context.

4. Take care with data collection

Data really, really matters if you want to understand if an intervention has worked and how it might be improved. Ideally more than one source of data is better. Objective data is better than subjective data but might not be available. The point is to do your homework.

As Kelly Doonan rightly suggests this process should be given proper time. It’s important not to just jump in with only a small bit of evidence and without being clear how the expected change is going to be measured.

5. Iterate. Then iterate again

One of the fundamental aspects of service design. If your intervention is going to be improved you are going to need a strong feedback loop and a good team.

6. Work ethically and do no harm

Working in the real world means treating people fairly, being honest about what’s happening and not raising expectations. Ask yourself if anyone will have any reason to be upset at any stage. If the answer is ‘yes’ then you are doing it wrong.

7. Look for the quickest, simplest solution — it might not be digital

Don’t start with the bells and whistles. Start with the simplest viable way of solving the problem you have identified. Of course someone may have already done this so do some research. Finding out about where people have tried but failed will also be invaluable.

8. This is for everyone

Designing for democracy means designing so it is easy for everyone to participate and accessible for all.

As Ben Proctor points out designing for citizens also means thinking about all citizens — not just those who are using a particular intervention. Does the experiment affect the rights and entitlements of those not directly involved? Are some groups privileged at the expense of others? How are you going to deal with that?

9. Share so others can benefit from what you learn

Other than the general benefits of being open it’s important to share what you learn so that others can use it.

10. Love the network

Notwestminster is a network that brings together a rich mix of practitioners, councillors, academics, think tanks, voluntary groups, techies and citizens of course. People want to help, give them the chance to.