The Prime-minister is ignoring my tweets:
An analysis of interactions between Canadians and the Federal government–And what we can do about it
Recently, I read a blog post from Jane Philpott in which she stated parliament was the most “dysfunctional” place she had ever worked. She specifically cited processes which are currently in place which drastically reduce the productivity of our government. This isn’t particularly surprising to hear, as the many old jokes about bureaucracy can attest. It is strange though, we are all aware of inefficiencies in our systems and yet, very little effort seems to be expended trying to address it. It was refreshing to see Jane Philpott draw attention to it in such clear language and it inspired me to apply my own professional expertise to our existing systems and processes. While I obviously cannot pass judgement on the way parliament works, having never worked there. I can pass judgement on the way citizens are forced to interact with our government.
Much like the plethora of bureaucracy jokes, there are warning signs everywhere which suggest the processes we have in place are dangerously inadequate. This article was written to expose those signs, their outcomes and to propose a solution. I am sure I am not the first to recognise this problem, however my expertise gives me an advantage when it comes to solving it. So I will make a case for the creation of an official mechanism to self-organise and to raise our concerns to the federal level– before we tear ourselves apart.
For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with analysing and fine-tuning processes. So it is no surprise that I landed in a profession in which those two skills make up a significant portion of my work. I am a professional user-experience designer, and for years my job has been to analyse processes, their outcomes and to provide solutions which will improve them. Sometimes it is for an entrepreneur creating a new digital product. Sometimes it is an engineering company which needs help identifying where they can add the most value in a new market. To succeed you must be able to look beyond the specifics of the industry and identify the foundational processes and issues. If you only identify surface-level problems, you can only provide surface-level solutions. These are the lessons and skills I have applied to develop this article.
The problem, in detail
Pr 1 — The capture process
This country has a serious problem, the vast majority of Canadians appear to have no idea how our government is meant to work. If you were to ask the average Canadian who their local MP is, I would be surprised if even 10% correctly named them. I bet if you asked those same people if there were political issues they would like to see addressed by the federal government, the number would be very different. Social media feeds are filled to bursting with political commentary. The comment sections of articles relating to politics are filled to bursting. I am no better, almost all of my recent facebook posts have been political and most of the people I follow on twitter are involved in politics. So I know firsthand, none of it will ever change anything.
There are two clear reasons for this: First, our government is set up to capture all of your opinions, ideas and grievances through your local representative (MP). Second, unless you happen to be friends with a high number of constituents in your electoral district (constituency), you will never reach the required volume to convince your MP (and therefore the federal government) to listen.
So why does everyone continue to use the same flawed strategy? The natural conclusion is to assume the fault lies with the user (in this case Canadian citizens). However, as a UX designer you are trained out of that mentality, for good reason. When you need a system or product to work, making excuses for it serves nobody but yourself. In this case, it is painfully clear the system we have in place is incredibly flawed. I wish I had access to the number of emails or phone calls received by MP’s so I could compare it with the number of complaints found on the platforms I mentioned above. I think I can make an educated guess in this case, the social media complaints would vastly outnumber the emails and phone calls.
Fundamentally, Canadians know they need numbers on their side if the government is ever going to hear them. Sending a letter or making a phone call as a single voice feels so worthless, it is actually preferable to post it on a platform the government will never see. During this transition, their objective often shifts from working with the government to change policy, to working with their friends/network to change government representatives. This is like burning down your house because you have an ant problem. The fact this is the prevailing strategy is a sledgehammer-sized indicator of the necessity for an improved process. One which enables consistent interaction between citizens and government so we can actually work together, instead of burning down the house every 4 years.
There is one other outcome of our current system. When you mix a growing number of political concerns with a terrible concern capture process, what happens? Rage, desperation, severely reduced faith in the establishment and “traditional” politicians — All the conditions right-wing populist leaders have capitalised on in recent provincial elections. While I do not agree with the policy decisions of these new right-wing governments– It certainly says a lot about how little the establishment understands of its citizens desires when they can lose so consistently to men whose appeal boils down to “I’m angry, just like you”. The desire for change is strong, frustration levels are very high and, outside of surprising election results, all of the indicators for this are captured in the wrong places. This hurts both MP’s and citizens alike.
Pr 2 — Existing social media will never be the solution
I have already boldly claimed that political discourse taking place on social media platforms is not going to fix anything, so I should provide some additional context:
- Promoting a cause organically on social media is like winning the lottery. You can put many hours of effort in to attempting to start a movement and your personal group of ‘friends’ may even try to help by sharing your vision. Inevitably though, you reach friends of friends. People who don’t know you or your concerns at all and therefore have no basis with which to judge your proposed call to action. In a case like this, it is much safer to just ignore it until it goes away than it is to take a risk and try to promote a stranger’s views. And so… Your dream, your movement, your hours of work go down the drain in a flash. You might be wondering, why can some videos go viral and spread around the world but political movements can not? The hard truth is people open their facebook or twitter to be entertained and fledgling political movements aren’t entertaining.
- Social media posts, and particularly the comment sections are not designed for conversation. They are designed to handle a few short comments from friends and family. As soon as you go beyond a single reply to a comment, the whole system falls apart; Which is totally fine for them because it suits their needs perfectly. It doesn’t suit the needs of a nuanced political discussion however. No discussion means it is the equivalent of everyone shouting their opinion at the same time. Not very productive or valuable.
- Social media is global by design, this brings two drawbacks. First, your connections/friends on social media are not a representation of your local community. Second, it opens the door to global outside influence. We have probably all heard of the massive political interference campaigns taking place on Facebook and Twitter. Our politician’s social media comment sections are very much part of that battleground. Which means the value of the comment section has been diminished to near meaninglessness. How could it hold any value if you can’t trust that John Smith, local car salesman isn’t actually a foreign influencer with an agenda?
Any proposed digital solution would have to be able to build momentum without any entertainment requirements, be immune to foreign influence, and promote nuanced conversation. This rules out all of the global social media giants.
This doesn’t mean social media cannot help with promotion at all. It can and should still be utilised– For example, by allowing Canadians to share petitions they agree with to their social circles. It just cannot be the only avenue of promotion for the reasons I have outlined above.
Pr 3 — Team players and shrinking common-ground
It has been well established that our First-past-the-post electoral system only promotes two parties and two leaders. So right from the outset, people adopt a mindset of two opposing teams on opposite sides of the spectrum. What one party represents, the other must fight and so on. When every issue is framed like this, it makes it next to impossible to find common-ground. And democracy requires common-ground for meaningful progress.
Furthermore, when Canadians vote for party leaders and parties, not for MP’s– It allows for a frightening lack of accountability for their actions as your representative. No accountability means there is no need for them to worry about what you might think of the way they are voting or what they promote.
The issues we now face (climate change & the collapse of nature) require us to work together, not just as progressives or conservatives, not just as a nation, but as a species. However, our government offers no official means of doing this (to be fair, no government does). There are no tools which make it easier for us, in our increasingly squeezed lives, to express our concerns effectively. So instead we can only unite around the issues our team leader tells us to. Leaving us all with a dissatisfying illusion of diverse opinion, but nothing which comes close to representing the actual issues we’re facing. Which brings us to our final problem…
Pr 4 — Low quality discussion
The future is very uncertain, whether it is your personal financial future or the future of humanity itself. It feels like we are under attack constantly and many people have responded to this by adopting a survival mentality. The way this presents itself in the digital sphere is through angry, defensive commentary. Disagreements instantly turn to personal insults and become an arms race of who can apply the most despicable label to the other person. In all of this, something very important is lost, the issue at hand and how to address it. Even if the person you are arguing with in the comment section of a CBC article is a literal fascist, you gain nothing by focusing all your attention on that.
In this political climate, the systems we have access to allow the angry voices to drown out everything else. To create a desire to find common-ground and reduce pointless, angry commentary you must provide a framework which is solution-oriented. I believe petitions are the best framework to accomplish this, but we currently only have access to national ones. For reasons I have already outlined, it is very difficult to gain national attention with the tools we have access to. So once again we find a process and toolset inadequate for the challenges we’re currently facing.
Have you consumed enough doom and gloom yet? I have, so let’s move on to my proposed solution and another diagram!
*everyone cheers “we love diagrams!”*
How we can improve it
Even if the issues in Fig. 1 were obvious to you, it was important to establish why Canadians feel it is the best strategy they have access to, so we can learn from it. The process I propose in Fig. 2 aligns with the way our government is designed to work and bridges the gap between citizens and their government. Momentum is generated at the local level first, then it is automatically promoted to the national level for all Canadians to see. Of course, this does not mean that the government must always do exactly what constituents demand. Instead, it creates the opportunity for government to understand and address the real issues Canadians are concerned about. Whether it is a positive result or negative result, a contextualised response is far preferable to no response. Even basic acknowledgement at the outset is a substantial improvement over our current system.
For citizens, it also provides a baseline with which they can judge the performance of their MP’s and their government. If 99% of your concerns are disregarded, you know you probably don’t agree with the policies of whoever is in charge. You can then take that information with you to the ballot box. Conversely, if your MP or the majority government usually champions your concerns, you are more likely to decide to keep them, regardless of party affiliations. This is how it is supposed to work, you vote for the representatives who best represent your interests.
So the next question is, what is required to bring this process into the real world? Well, you are in luck, because I am literally getting to that right now!
Local → National: Momentum generation by design
The strategy at the heart of this improved process, is to generate momentum for national action and to create national common-ground. As it stands, the tools citizens have to do this are social media and… That’s it. I have established social media is ineffective for generating momentum because it relies on tens of thousands of individuals (restricted to a particular country) to spontaneously share and promote a cause. It is far easier and more realistic to generate momentum with a smaller, constituency-restricted petition. This will create a sort of proving ground for issues, ensuring only higher-quality issues are promoted to the national stage. Thus reducing the chance Canadians will develop an attention immunity to national petitions. Also, by the time petitions hit the national stage, they will already have quite a few signatures and confidence in the validity of the issue will be higher.
Promoting the local to national transition will be a common theme amongst all my proposed solutions. You cannot have one without the other as federal action is almost entirely based on national issues.
Constituency and national forums
Remember all that political discourse which is found on social media platforms? It still needs a place to go. A petition might be the outcome but first you need a chance to see how many others agree with your concerns, locally and nationally. You will also very likely want to try to convince others of the need to address your concern(s) before you create a petition. That can be accomplished using this forum.
The forum must support meaningful, trackable conversation and organise content by popularity and time. This way, outliers will not be able to derail conversations as easily. While this may be seen as a weakness, remember that democracy requires common-ground to progress. So emphasis should be placed on opinions and ideas which are gathering the most support. Of course, to ensure you do not create a system in which popular ideas and thoughts attract all the attention (leaving none for anything else) you balance it by giving new content a small boost. Such systems already exist, the most famous example being Reddit. I would urge anyone who isn’t familiar with it to check it out. It works exceptionally well, despite its ugly interface.
The vehicle for Canadian’s concerns needs to be solution-oriented– Not because I assume the people have all the right answers, but because it will shift the focus away from negative, angry reactions towards an actionable outcome. In my opinion, community petitions which have a chance to grow to promoted national petitions are the ideal solution. Each constituency will have its own signature requirement based on the voting population. Once a petition surpasses the required signatures in a single constituency, it will automatically be promoted to the national petitions list. All users will be alerted to new national petitions, at a minimum, every time they access the platform.
Petitions from the outset will need to be assigned to a predefined category (or potentially multiple categories). An example could be, all petitions related to the economy are tagged and grouped as such. However, there will still almost certainly need to be some form of admin with the national petitions list. Petitions which are very similar should be grouped into a single petition, again to increase the efficiency of Canadians who decide they have time to access the platform.
The petitions must also contain their own comment sections. This way you can see why people agree or disagree with the proposal. If it doesn’t go through, you can use the comments to figure out if you just need to make some minor changes before trying again– or if your issue isn’t as wide-spread as you might have thought. Much like many of the tools in my proposal, the comment section is not only useful for citizens. It is also very useful to MP’s because it gives them a chance to understand the context which made people feel they should agree or disagree with a particular petition.
As you can see in Fig. 2 there are a series of opportunities for engagement. I don’t mean these as general guidelines, I mean these must be followed for the system to gain the trust of Canadians. As it stands, Canadians get upset about issues and post to facebook, then are faced with analytics-driven speeches which generally ignore the issues they are concerned about. Relevant feedback from the government is extremely rare and only seems to come in the wake of some kind of national emergency– Or during an election campaign. An essential part of restoring faith in Canadian institutions and representatives is semi-regular communication. The people communicate with MP’s and government via petitions, and the government communicates with the people via responses to those petitions. As I mentioned above, even semi-regular acknowledgement would go a long way to create unity between the people and our government.
The engagements also provide a perfect opportunity for representatives to educate Canadians. For example, if a national petition which states we should stop all immigration is successful– The government can respond by providing statistics and a sound, honest argument which refutes the claims of the petition. The same can be said of any carbon-tax petitions which become successful. Not everyone watches the news, not everyone reads the reports from the UN about climate-change, yet everyone must be educated for the required policies to become palatable to the public. Refuting a petition can actually be a powerful opportunity to achieve this and to create more common-ground.
A technical solution for a technical age
Solutions built for modern technology coupled with great design have done wonders to reduce the stress of our daily lives. You can now order and pay for dinner entirely from your phone, you can buy plane tickets and plan your entire vacation digitally, and you can complete all your banking while commuting home. The reason these solutions rose to prominence so quickly is because people simply don’t have the time to do things the way the used to be done. Disposable emotional and intellectual energy is very hard to come by. However, the way the government rolls out solutions to problems, you would think they live in a time bubble permanently stuck in the 80’s. We haven’t invested in any solutions which utilise modern technology to improve participation in our government. Even though citizen participation in government has been at the heart of democracy since the Ancient greeks created it. The reason why also remains the same; The single parent with 2 kids needs to be able to participate in our democracy just as much as the wealthy retiree. Does our system currently allow for that? Not even close.
There was a time when you would never dream of proposing purely digital solutions for fear of those without internet access or smartphones. Those days are long gone, with 90% of Canadians accessing the internet as of 2018, and 80% of Canadians expected to have smartphones by 2020. As you can see, we are now in the clear to utilise every advantage technology offers us– And it offers a lot.
The solution I propose would take the form of a mandatory smartphone application and a website. I believe the smartphone app needs to be mandatory because that is the only way to ensure widespread adoption. Without widespread adoption this solution quickly becomes another digital platform where ideas go to die. To access it, you would need to register using some form of secure government authorised verification. There are probably more ways to achieve this than I am aware of, so I will just leave it as a general requirement. To participate in discussion or petitions you would need to be legally eligible to vote. Ineligible Canadian citizens who have smartphones could still keep up with what is going on locally and nationally as observers if they wish to do so.
This platform only works with access to existing government databases. For example, you could not rely on individual citizens to set their own constituency. That would create an opportunity for error and manipulation. As I have already stated, there can be no such opportunities for a process as important as this. By the time you first login the system must already know your name, address, constituency and your local representative.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it definitely is now– This solution must be created, owned and operated by the government itself.
Ambitious, yet essential
I’ll be the first to admit, what I have just proposed is no small change. However, the cost of correction must be compared to the cost of inaction. As I have established, the systems we have in place are worse than inadequate, they are destructive. The current system creates disenfranchisement, and unnecessary division amongst the populace. It allows for a government which can all too easily ignore the will of its own citizens. It massively hinders participation from those who might need to participate most (ex. single parents with kids). These aren’t the kinds of issues which can be addressed with a band-aid, they require a fundamentally new process and a solution utilising all the advantages our modern society offers.
It would be a miracle if I nailed everything on the first-pass using only my experience. So I would like for others to have the chance to provide some feedback. For example, where I might be wrong, what can be improved, whether or not you agree the issue is as serious as I feel it is etc. If I can attract the attention of some current MP’s that would be ideal because they have the most relevant knowledge and can therefore provide the most valuable feedback.
After that, I can complete the actual design of the platform and a formal, finalised proposal to accompany it. I have already started on the design, in fact I have been chewing on it intellectually for a few years now. However, securing unbiased feedback must come first, so that is why I chose to not include any product designs in this article. Last, is the really difficult part– Trying to get it funded and built. It will require a great deal of cooperation from the government, but I truly believe it must be done, so I will do everything I can.