Which comes first, people or information?

I just finished absorbing the new digital government strategy rolled out on Tuesday by the White House. Thinking strictly as a technologist, my first impression is the strategy is an exercise in stating the obvious. There’s nothing blatantly WRONG with it, but, there’s also nothing ground-breaking. This is a pretty standard and accepted approach to large scale platforms/systems/services.

Now, let’s take a look at the strategy again with a different point of view, the customer. From this perspective, there is an obvious mistake in the strategy, not putting the customer/citizen front and center. Many will argue that the customer is represented, even called out in a bullet point. Yet, it is not the first bullet, it is the third. Subtle? Maybe, maybe not. It is my experience that whatever is written in a strategy or requirements document first is what gets the most focus, so, that would suggest that the ‘needs’ of the information come before the ‘needs’ of the customer. When the inevitable time comes to make trade off decisions in the design, who normally loses? Yep, the person using the system.

Forward thinking organizations who have wildly successful online applications and services have recognized this by building their digital strategies to first focus on people. Who’s the target user? What do they care about? How do they use technology in their day to day lives? And most importantly, what are they trying to do?? It is only after the customer’s perspective is fully understood that the technical aspects of the system should be considered. Systems and services are built from the top down, rather than the traditional approach of bottom up.

At the end of the day, what’s more important, the system/data architecture, the APIs, etc. OR a citizen/customer successfully achieving a desired outcome? The answer? Both, however, it’s time to get the horse before the cart.

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Chris Cairns

Bobby, fantastic analysis. I agree with all your points. My take is that the creators of this strategy believe that entrepreneurs and for-profit and non-profit organizations will find ways to turn this open data into meaningful public, citizen-centric services. I think this strategy is really focused on that crowd directly — as an indirect means to service the public. In one sense, the administration is saying: “let’s stop assuming that we have all the answers and know what the public needs; let’s give them a platform to decide themselves.”

Dannielle Blumenthal

I read the strategy. It has customer-centricity in there. Overall a step in the right direction – with one caveat.

The discussion of security should be more prominent. The more openness and interoperability the greater the risk.

Also there is a need to reach into agencies and engage long-time employees with new-style technology thinking. Documents like these are “right” in an ivory tower sense but there is a continued need for grassroots discussion about making open government real. And the solution should not be forced from the outside but rather organic and collaborative from an agency perspective. Consider everyone’s wisdom and expertise.

One point worth raisin is the discussion of governance. We need generalists who understand content, IT and project management to spearhead digital gov efforts. Not IT in a vacuum coupled with professional communicators in a vacuum. More of a fusion.

Bobby Caudill

Dannielle, It was not my intent to suggest that there was no customer-centricity, rather, that the priorities, as listed in the strategy, are wrong. I apologize if I was not being clear. For far too long, systems and applications have be designed by well-meaning technologist who start with the technical aspects of the system, rather than first attempting to understand the people they are building the system for and what these people expect with regards to experience and outcome. And this is in no way exclusive to government systems. There are shining examples of down-right lousy user experiences in every industry, from large companies to small.

You suggest that the solution should not be forced from the outside. I will make an assumption that, by the outside, you are referring to an outside technical organization. My opinion on that matter depends on a number of factors, starting with the level of skill and expertise of the agency personnel vs. that of the outside org. Sometimes, you may be right, other times, perhaps not. However, I would like to point out again that the continued mistake made over and over for as long as there have been computer systems and applications is that fact that the technologists spec’ing, designing and building the systems rarely start from the perspective of what people are trying to do. Especially with regards to any customer/citizen facing application, the user experience should never be about the needs of the agency (or the data), rather, it should be about the user. Any agency or data ‘requirements’, should, of course, be dealt with, preferably by abstracting these requirements away from the users.

Some of the best innovation I’ve seen in systems comes when the designers think first like people and second, like technologists.

And, your point about fusion is correct, very few technologist in the work force today understand the nuances of user experience. There is still a divide between many IT shops, the business and the end users. In the grand scheme, user experience (UX) is a relatively new discipline, started in the commercial world primarily to drive differentiation from competitors. Successful online companies are investing heavily in this arena to stay ahead. The challenge for government is the fact that it is being faced with raising the UX bar to satisfy demanding citizens who want to engage with government in the same way as they buy books/music/movies, play games and socialize. Currently, a costly endeavor.

With regards to security, it is my experience that the appropriate level of protection becomes obvious once there is an understanding of the users. However, to your point, in the same way I believe the customers have been short changed in this strategy, I completely agree that security seems to have been added as an after thought.