I recently read a very good article by Patrick Ibarra, former city manager of Port Angeles, WA, and now a management consultant. He makes a very interesting and, in my opinion, important point: It’s not enough for government to deliver services efficiently; it should also provide a rich experience that fosters a sense of place in the process – what he calls “that important feeling of connection and belonging so central to a community’s well-being”
He makes the case that people (read: citizens) are seeking both quality and convenience. They are looking for ease of use, special privileges (e.g., special access) and an overall pleasurable user experience. Providing a rich services experience is not just a good thing for government to do; citizens are increasingly expecting it and, in the not too distant future, will be demanding it (See my post Why Citizen Experience Matters).
Can government deliver services in a manner that they provide emotionally enriching experiences? Ibarra argues that it has less to do with the size of budgets and more with the attitudes of the government officials providing these services. I would go a step beyond: I believe it’s a cultural issue. It’s not that anyone in the government is doing anything wrong; it’s just that, historically, their focus and – very importantly – their measures have been on functionality, cost and efficiency. We’re talking here of a cultural change akin to that of a government going from an autocracy to a democracy – it’s a whole new perspective.
So I believe the answer is yes, but it’s going to be an evolutionary process, partly driven by a generational change. The catalysts are organizations such as USDS and 18F in the US and GDS in the UK, that are bringing in people from industry who are well-versed on best commercial practices, particularly user experience, into the government and seeding them across its IT workforce. We’re just at the very early stages of that process, though.
An interesting idea Ibarra proposes to “enrich the emotional connection” is for the government to offer rewards programs just like those in private industry. Some examples: giving municipal swimming and recreation center season-pass holders discounts on recreation programs; loyalty programs for frequent airport parking lot users and longer check-out periods for public library customers with spotless overdue-book records for a year. These programs would certainly foster goodwill (and, in the case of the library programs, good behavior). But would they also foster inequality? After all, favoritism is the antithesis of democratic government. What do you think?