Government and design are not mutually exclusive

As a designer working on government-related things for the past eight years, I’ve waded elbows deep into fixing government processes online. The difference between private sector and public sector engagement is large, but the gap is closing.

Last year, the White House released the White House Digital Strategy — a document that clearly identifies the critical role design will play in the interaction between citizens and their government. Responsive design, device-agnostic approaches, and a significant focus on mobile are all called out directly. Think about that for a second: responsive design in a government document. This year, the executive branch’s Open Data Policy Open Data Policy was published not on government servers, but on GitHub. Not only that, one of the first commits, or edits to this document was an improvement to my initial design. This is citizen to government collaboration, happening in a way that is transparent, open and available for everyone. Effectively, this is like turning on “track changes” for a living, government document. A design edit to a policy document may not represent wholesale change in our democracy, but it is a start.

The technology is no longer the challenge, as the tools we have at our disposal are many. Git and git hosting providers like GitHub for decentralized collaboration, HTML5 and CSS3 for accessible device-agnostic content, and smart phone adoption for bridging our broadband gap are just a small part of the tool chest.

The challenge is more fundamental — how do we as citizens engage, not just on election day, but in the far less sexy process of governing? Big, messy problems are out there, but good design can, and will, provide a significant part of the solution. We just have to be willing to get our hands a little bit dirty.

This past Sunday, I was inspired to see a fantastic cross-section of citizens do just that at a Hackathon in Newark, NJ. While a hackathon is just a one-day event that can’t bring about fundamental change, it can spark something. The results might not be as finished or as polished as we’d like, in the end the code is not what is important. Hackathons can help fuel a cultural shift towards engagement, towards fixing our democratic institutions — and that is a much bigger deal than perfect code. If the citizens I saw rolling up their sleeves this past weekend are anything to go by, we are in for something good over the next few years.

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