How user-centred design can spur trust

25th July 2018

By Stephen Goldsmith*

Democracy depends on trust between government and citizens, making the development of trust a top priority for public officials.

Transparency, proximity, and performance can all help develop trust, and nowhere is this more easily achieved than at the city level. Municipal leaders live amongst community members in neighbourhoods affected by their own policies and local council meetings are open to the public; retail politics, when done well, produce confidence that an elected leader is ‘one of us’ and understands our needs.

But of course, neither massive amounts of transparency nor glad-handing will produce trust in the absence of performance. A reasonable request for service needs to result in a reasonably quick response.

Performance and awareness pass through a ‘user interface’ that shapes resident-government communication. In this respect, even municipal government lags behind the private sector. For many residents, dealing with government represents an obstacle on their path to satisfaction–be that waiting in long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles, completing troves of paperwork to obtain a permit, or visiting one department only to be redirected elsewhere.

While the predominant progressive-era bureaucratic structure serves to limit risk and instil a compliance form of accountability, it stifles creativity and collaboration through uniformity and departmental specialisation. Citizens demand and deserve the kind of user-centred design that has spurred faith in business, even as public trust in government has declined.

To offer this kind of citizen focus, City Hall needs to move from control to curation, serving as a hub for civic collaboration rather than a central controller of information. In this model, cities think of themselves as operating a platform essential to the development of new partnerships across departments and sectors, focusing on such technical issues as data-sharing and mining, rigorous analytics, and providing the privacy and security necessary to make these partnerships work.

The citizen-centred city integrates data from public and private contributors, curates the information for ease of use, and coordinates collaboration between agencies, institutions, residents, and organisations supporting public work. Greater access to data and broader means of engagement pave the way for tech startups and other innovators to reimagine solutions to public issues. Cities can further facilitate these partnerships with events like hackathons, during which cities provide the raw data for programmers to collaborate on solutions to key challenges.

Yet, no degree of transparency will produce trust without results. Therefore, cities should look at the retail interface between workers and residents. A commitment to open, distributed governance places citizen experience at the forefront of every phase of government operations, from problem identification to project implementation. Crowdsourcing applications in many cities allow residents to report complaints or positive feedback in real time. Powerful design tools, from 3D data visualisation to GIS mapping software, empower residents to experiment with data and offer input during the proposal development phase.

This way, government isn’t just designing its systems for users; it is designing with users, incorporating feedback from residents and private partners at each step along the way to create a positive user experience. Residents become more engaged with public projects, take greater ownership over their outcomes, and likely contribute to better quality services that take comprehensive account of their needs.

Government as a platform also transforms the public servant’s role from that of a compliance-bound box checker to an active problem solver, allowing resident enquiries to be expressed and resolved more quickly and effectively. Armed with better data, supported by cross-departmental and public-private partnerships, and motivated by outcome-based performance metrics, workers can make more informed, data-driven decisions.

Technology enables the shift toward citizen-driven government, but public leaders and employees maintain responsibility for redesigning city operations. A user experience focus will ultimately put local governments in the lead and restore confidence in democratic leadership of the public.


*Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis. His latest book is A New City O/S: The Power of Open, Collaborative, and Distributed Governance, co-authored with Neil Kleiman.

Scott Becker, a research assistant and writer at Harvard Kennedy School, contributed to this column.

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