People-Powered Policy - The Potential of UX Design Principles in Government Decision Making

People-Powered Policy - The Potential of UX Design Principles in Government Decision Making

Cherokee investigates how UX design principles have potential to aid government decision making.

Cherokee Mahoney
0 min read
July 31, 2023

UX (User Experience) design has revolutionised the digital realm, making apps, websites, and digital tools intuitive, engaging, and user-centric. However, the potential of UX design is not confined to the digital sphere. Picture a world where UX principles infiltrate the corridors of power, shaping the very heart of government policy and decision-making. Imagine a world where proactive engagement precedes policy mishaps, and where governing is no longer reactive, but anticipatory and people-centric.

The key to unlocking this potential lies in grasping the current state of affairs and the profound disconnect between government decision-making and the citizenry impacted by these decisions.

The Disconnect in Governance

Historically, policy-making and government decision-making processes have largely been top-down affairs. Governments and their advisors craft policies which are subsequently relayed to the public. This detached approach often results in a chasm between policymakers and the recipients of their policies, spawning a slew of complications.

A stark illustration of this divide was the implementation of the Poll Tax in the UK during the late 1980s. This tax, applied as a uniform rate to all adults, ignited outrage due to its perceived regressivity. The ensuing public uproar led to riots and played a critical role in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. A proactive engagement with the public, conducting user research and applying UX principles, could have anticipated this negative response and steered the policy towards more equitable outcomes.

In my tenure as a planning officer, my team and I took a rather novel approach. We carted a literal sofa around the city, engaging locals in the nuances of the new city plan. This wasn’t just a tokenistic consultation. We illuminated the reality of the situation, enabling people to move beyond knee-jerk disdain to informed engagement. Our methods won awards, but they shouldn’t have. We were simply involving people in shaping their city. This proactive engagement enlightened them on the challenges of not having a plan, fostered understanding of their community’s needs, and highlighted the benefits of development and change.

Embracing People-Centric Change

Government policy-making can gain substantially from UX design principles. The key is transitioning from a reactive to a proactive stance. Instead of waiting for a problem to metastasise into a crisis or for an issue to gain traction on social media, we need to actively engage with people’s needs, problems, and aspirations.

Current methods often trigger change when an issue goes viral or an individual shouts the loudest, privileging sensationalism over substance. It rewards those who can spin the most compelling narrative, rather than those grappling with the most profound challenges. By integrating UX principles, we can ensure every voice is heard, and that policy modifications genuinely reflect the community’s needs and desires.

UX in Action — Revolutionising Policy-Making

Let’s delve into how we can actualise this vision. How can we leverage UX practices to galvanise people-powered policy?

Step 1 — User Research

User research is the backbone of UX design, and it should be the foundation of policy-making as well. Through interviews, focus groups, and surveys, we can understand the needs, behaviours, and experiences of community members. This research enables us to identify the real, day-to-day problems that people face, not just those that monopolise the headlines.

Step 2 — Co-Creation Workshops

Involve the community in the policy-making process through co-creation workshops. These collaborative sessions allow the community to actively participate in shaping solutions. This approach not only ensures that policies reflect people’s needs but also fosters trust and engagement.

Step 3 — Prototyping and Testing

Rather than rolling out full-scale policies, governments could benefit from the UX practice of prototyping and testing. By piloting policies on a smaller scale, they can gather valuable feedback and refine the policy before a full-scale launch. This iterative approach helps to circumvent costly errors and ensures that the policy is effective and user-friendly.

Step 4 — Continuous Feedback and Improvement

Policy implementation is not the end of the road. Governments should create avenues for ongoing feedback and commit to continuous improvement. This practice allows for the proactive identification of potential issues and offers opportunities for policy adjustments based on user feedback. It shifts the focus from a one-time policy rollout to a perpetual endeavour of improvement and adaptation.

Be brave

Remember, at the heart of this, it’s all about engaging people. Throw out the traditional methods of tick box consultations and get out there- talk to people, have conversations. You don’t need to cart a sofa around but there’s many other things you can do to get people involved.

Case Study — Putting UX Principles into Practice

Finland’s experiment with Universal Basic Income (UBI) from 2017 to 2018 offers a practical example of UX design principles in policy-making. The Finnish government provided a group of 2,000 unemployed people with €560 per month without any conditions. This pilot programme aimed to study the impacts of a UBI system and its potential benefits.

The project embodied several UX principles, including user research, prototyping, and iterative testing. The programme served as a prototype, a small-scale experiment that yielded valuable insights for policy refinement. Continuous feedback from the participants was gathered and analysed, opening avenues for future enhancements and policy decisions. Even though the UBI programme was not extended nationwide, it stimulated global conversations about UBI systems and underscored the value of a UX-led approach to policy-making.

The Future of Policy-Making

Adopting a UX approach to policy-making doesn’t mean every decision should be crowd-sourced or that expert advice and statistical data should be sidelined. Instead, it’s about melding these traditional inputs with a heightened focus on understanding people’s experiences, needs, and behaviours.

In an age of escalating social and political division, a people-centred approach to policy-making could serve as a bridge between governments and citizens, fostering more inclusive and effective policies. This approach holds the potential to transform our communities from mere venues of policy enactment to active hubs of policy creation, shaping, and refinement.

While this task may seem daunting, consider the alternative — a world where policies continue to be shaped in ivory towers, alienated from the realities and experiences of those they impact. We possess the tools to pivot towards a more inclusive, user-centred approach to policy-making; all that’s required is the will to deploy them.

Picture a world where policymakers evolve into user researchers and where citizens transform from passive recipients of policy decisions to active participants. This is the potential of UX in policy-making, the promise of a people-powered approach. It’s high time we commenced conversations, deepened our understanding, and started designing policies with the people, for the people.

Remember, proactive trumps reactive, dialogue outperforms decrees, and understanding supersedes assumptions. By embracing these principles, we can revolutionise the way we govern, the way we live, and the way we shape our collective future. As UX practitioners and conscientious citizens, the challenge — and the tools to address it — lies before us. It’s time to start designing a better future for all.


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