Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Tension between User-centered Design and E-government Services

Here's an excellent talk by Nalini Kitamraju, assistant professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, for Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society on the tension in creating e-government services using user-centered design principles.

This one's highly recommended for anyone interested in how governments can better interact with citizens in the digital age. To be honest, the lessons from the talk are not limited to e-government; they can be applied to government in general. However, as we're fumbling through figuring out how to best use the tools we've developed over the last half-century or so, the video provides some great food for thought.
Nalini Kotamraju on the Tension between User-centered Design and E-government Services

Individuals and institutions are slower to adopt e-government services due to a lack of user centricity in design and development. Work with PortNL, an integrated e-government service for expatriates in the Netherlands, suggests the core of governments' difficulty in creating user-centered services lies in a fundamental tension between the needs of users and those of governments. In this talk, Nalini Kotamraju — an Assistant Professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands — explains how the purposes of e-government services can be met through a user-centered design approach, and how site builders can put the needs of users ahead of the ideas of governmental clients.

Through most of the talk, Kitamraju is focussed on government (remember: government is just a group of citizens) as a service provider. One of the points that she brought up during Q&A is that participatory democracy is relatively low on citizens' lists of e-government concerns. Granted she was doing her research in the Netherlands, but I would venture that much of it is relatable to the United States and other Western countries, at least most of the time. The popularity of democratic participation ebbs and flows in this country. Many people are looking for ways to use tech to help drive popular participation, and it will really be no small feat to do so. We're not in a situation where the masses are perpetually pounding at the doors of city hall.

At the same time, though, there are novel uses of modern social media and technology for driving engagement. At the Supernova forum this past week, I learned about ThinkUp, an app from Gina Trapani & Co. at Expert Labs. It provides an exceedingly simple way to poll for anecdotal answers to arbitrary questions using Twitter. It's not a government app per se, but certainly one that they could use. Perhaps it's not that citizens aren't interested in talking with the government. Perhaps citizens just feel that it's not worth the effort—government doesn't listen anyway. Perhaps if there were better, more engaging, less bureaucratic ways to communicate with government, people would be more interested in doing so.

In other words, maybe citizens' standards are just lower than what they should/could be. If there are no worthwhile communication channels with government, then no one expects there to be. However, if there were worthwhile channels, then people may raise a fit if you to take them away. This brings to mind Tim O'Rielly's conception of government as a platform (a good definition of a platform, via Scott Heiferman, is something that enables people to empower other people). For now, government is like an IBM/360; you can build on it (well, some people can), but it's cumbersome, expensive, and often over-centralized. When will we get to Django or Ruby on Rails? And what cultural shifts will be necessary?

But I digress.
Watch the video (in one of several formats) here.

(via Putting People First)

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