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How Designers Will Re-engineer Our Relationship With Government

When a conference delegate exclaimed in a loud whisper, "Ooh, it feels like San Francisco '97 in here!" at the Gov 2.0 Summit last week, should I have gotten the tour T-shirt signed there and then, or was it time to start worrying?Lessons from the last dot-com frenzy would suggest caution: hang back, leave a little Kool-aid in the can, avoid the bugs of first releases, adopt late with savvy, and then tell everyone you were there at the beginning. In this case, there's another problem: Public technology initiatives are funded by tax dollars, not angel investors. Accountability, the threat of elections, expectations raised by other service experiences, and the zeal of do-gooding developers all have a part to play in driving improvements and innovation in public services.Government administrators are experts on the public service mission and the business of governing-from local to federal. And geeks know what's technically feasible: They are, for example, happy to mine public databases for meaningful information and reveal previously unseen patterns with policy implications. But someone needs to focus on who this is actually serving: the people. And that's where designers, the unlikely stewards of citizenship, come in.Service designers-who tend to be rigorous thinkers, great story-tellers, and experienced opportunity-spotters-have a way of framing possibilities and, much like regulators, a knack for turning what seems ridiculous today into the obvious and expected of tomorrow. And they are seasoned brokers of client requirements and end-user needs. So when Silicon Valley's product innovation meets the Beltway's org charts, it will be designers who are representing the interests of citizens at the center of any Gov 2.0 initiative.This isn't just about showing off widgets, beautifying tax forms, or giving the census a new typeface. Creativity can and must be applied to the driest technocratic details in order to deliver seamless, intuitive, accessible, and engaging services that create new ways for people and government to interact.At the Summit, both Dave Warner (CEO of MindTel, and a former Navy medic) and Clay Shirky (the author of Here Comes Everybody) argued that to succeed, tech-mediated civic participation must allow for radical inclusion, and for transactions created for, by, and between citizens and government. That doesn't imply mob rule and a diminished role for bureaucrats; merely a change in responsibility. Expert administrators become curators, licensors of public services, and facilitators of transparent transactions within the public realm, but they remain specialists who are able to govern flexibly and coherently and at a massive scale.The opportunity now, as government goes online, is to invite civic participation through all kinds of properly regulated, tech-mediated services. The timing is right. The network is installed, and the electorate is digitally savvy. And it seems like we have a new administration that might be able to do something about it.Guest blogger Rachel Abrams is in D.C. to listen in to the wisdom of the technorati, grass-roots idealist application designers, public officials, and social media gurus at the Gov 2.0 summit. See her previous post coverage here. Photo (cc) by Flickr user ChrisAmico.

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