What politicians need to know about social public information pt1: Breaking the monopoly

A few summers ago, David Cameron allegedly sent Tory MPs on holiday with a copy of Thaler & Sunstein’s behavioural economics bestseller Nudge – a standard-bearer for a wider canon of literature all about how small tweaks in the way services are presented can make a huge difference to their effectiveness.

Serious management consultancies working with the public sector are now heavily selling service design and the idea that public services can be entirely re-designed subject to a close engagement with the users has caught on strongly at the highest levels of government and has been – at least – noticed at every level.

The public sector is, however, a long way behind the private sector in this. It has huge advantages and few of the difficulties that universal public services have in this field. Supermarkets know the minutiae of how we respond to packaging, positioning and pricing. Ever-more sophisticated market research enables them to be ever-more efficient in their predictions of what we want, when we want it, and what sales pitch we will respond to most effectively.

Nowhere is this being perfected as well as in online marketing. This video shows how closely the Compare The Market website has been tested using eye-tracking software. A camera has been mounted on the PC screen and the red dot reflects what the users eye movements are doing. Watch:

This is a minute examination of exactly how a prospective customer is evaluating and using a service. Web ‘usability’ experts can iron out the wrinkles in a sales process to maximise their conversion rates with dramatic success rates (check what the day-rate of a good usabilty specialists is if you don’t believe me!)

But it’s not as easy for public bodies to ensure that their services are marketed to prospective users to maximise efficiency, partly because government information services have more complex and chaotic feedback loops by comparison. Matching services to demand (and nudging users towards a more efficient use of these services) is a great deal harder.

Traditionally, Civil Servants have printed leaflets, provided various help-lines, information kiosks, noticeboards, paid ads etc, and latterly, they have produced websites.

Often, they can have a limited amount of success with creative media buying and a more scientific approach to the positioning of information, but without the feedback loops that retail outlets have, they will always struggle in this regard. Simply improving feedback loops can make things more efficient. But there are much bigger opportunities than that to hand.

Rigid structures and jargon

Aside from poor placement, there is another popular criticism of government information: The rigid provider-defined channels don’t meet the flexible demands of users. Even the cleverer systems of delivery may not be the ones that match the intuition of users. The result? Unclaimed benefits or excessive strain on one part of the system while another sits idle.

When services that fail to reach the intended beneficiary, frustrated citizens start to ‘game the system’ to get what they think they’re entitled to. Public services staffed with people who want to help on one side of the wall. Citizens who can’t find the help they need on the other. Trust breaks down very quickly under these circumstances.

Understandably, civil servants can underestimate the degree to which the public grasp the structures through which services are provided, or how far institutional language is understood. When a prospective user does manage to access the information that they want, they may find that it is dominated by jargon.

Get Satisfaction's JarGonEven doing this job with limited success is expensive and demanding. Keeping lines of communication open, acknowledging and adapting to change and ensuring information is accurate, timely and up-to-date is a huge and never-ending logistical operation.

Commercial services can be more flexible and innovative both in terms of their substance and the product design – the way they fit neatly into retail channels and the way that they contain feedback loops that are invaluable to marketeers.

But there is no reason why public services couldn’t start to develop the kind of feedback loops that commercial operators have with the US website GetSatisfaction.com

Blocking out the feedback?

But there are also darker problems. Civil servants can sometimes use this monopoly against the public interest. Politicians may disagree about how big a problem ‘budget maximising bureaucrats’ and ‘producer lobbies’ are, but they all agree that they are A Bad Thing.

Poor feedback loops preserve hierarchies and vested interests. If a government body is doing something that suits the civil servants (preserving agreeable and well-paid jobs) but not the public, then the feedback loop can threaten this. There’s a whole strand of political thought – ‘Public Choice Theory’ – dedicated to fleshing this problem out.

In some quarters, notions like The Post Bureaucratic Age and The Big Society are seen as being the way through this minefield. In others, it’s seen as an opportunistic attempt to make a crude Thatcherite anti-state agenda more attractive without addressing legitimate underlying needs.

In reality, this isn’t just an opportunity for the free-market right. If it is solved creatively, it offers the political left the opportunity to remake public services in a new image. Away from the faceless, rigid self-serving departments and, instead offering the holy grail that the democratic left has been seeking all along: Collective action that is efficient, caring, humane and responsive. Public services of a social bent that have the legitimacy with taxpayers that the defence forces currently enjoy.

Whatever else is happening on the public expenditure front, the left and right can both find something attractive in the possibilities that new information feedback loops can create.

The only people who really could have anything to fear are those who are already employed in describing government services in tortuous detail. In my experience, these are often the people who are most aware of the possibilities and most eager to embrace them. There is a potential revolution in the way that needs are met – the user-generated state – it’s one that has an appeal to left and right, and one that may not even face too much bureaucratic resistance.

In the next part of this essay, I will look at how parts of the private sector have been quietly revolutionised by processes that could transform government.

About Paul Evans

Living in London but working all over Britain and Ireland, Paul is the curator of the Political Innovation project. On twitter as @paul0evans1, blogging mainly at the Local Democracy blog and working mostly for Memeserver Ltd.
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