Loved this piece. I also once fell into the "trap" of thinking that there was a need for more modern means of distributing local news to city residents - that if only they had information delivered to them in a better way, people would magically get more involved. But that simply isn't true when involvement requires dozens of hours of unpaid labor simply to understand the questions being discussed, never mind actually propose viable solutions. And even if you get that far - it's very likely the people making decisions won't listen to you anyway! Then you become just another frustrated, disengaged resident who vows never to get involved in that process again. That is not a user problem, that's a system/interface problem.

I've said it before: really the only real way to participate in politics is to devote your career to it. Outside of that there's very little that can be done by political means. High agency and well-meaning residents can do a ton of good by circumventing that channel, but that's a whole different discussion.

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Great article on a very important topic. I think the "product <> customer" framing is a significant improvement on the adversarial "government vs citizen" dynamic we have now, but I think we see the limitations of this framing when we get to questions of governance.

We can’t and shouldn’t expect all people to be competent in all technical domains (building a laptop, flying a plane, etc) but we should expect all people to be competent at being people. I would argue that self-organization and governance are core competencies for every citizen in a free society. I think we massively underweight the importance of this and we’re broadly worse off because of it, but that’s a topic for another day.

So the "Don’t Make Me Think!" product mindset isn’t necessarily wrong but it is reductive. The key distinction is the kind of thinking we need people to do - thoughtful engagement is essential, grokking complexity is not. We probably don’t need people to understand all the nuances of zoning, but we should expect citizens to reflect on their experience as users of the city product and give feedback in a way that is fundamentally different from what Dell expects to hear from me about my recent XPS purchase. A free and flourishing society does require some nontrivial amount of effort to maintain, and my concern with the product frame is that it implies we can abstract away this responsibility.

So the balance seems to be that we should use technology to solicit more and better feedback. Then it’s on the administrators (who have the context and understand the complexity) to turn that feedback into a solution. To the extent citizens want to propose solutions instead of just describe problems, they can engage with the complexity of the system to understand where and how to intervene. This is not typically an option or expectation for “closed source” commercial products.

Overall the product/customer perspective is very useful, I just want to iron out the subtleties so I can think more clearly about it. Curious to hear what you think!

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I want this to be true, but I don't know if it reflects real life government/citizen interactions.  I agree it is ridiculous to expect citizens to give meaningful input and feedback on complex government operations and policies.  But some citizens think they should be able to be involved in the gory details anyway.

Let's say the government does everything right. They do market research by asking citizens about problems, not asking for solutions like you say.  They have well trained economists, policy makers, analysts etc. and they design an elegant solution for the problem, and roll it out to the public.  It is still possible, and likely, that some people won't like it.  "Why didn't you do it this way?"  "Why was the public not involved in your process of developing the policy?"  

I work in city government, so I can tell you this reaction is not hypothetical.  I've seen it in the last year. Honestly, I wish citizens would let me do my job, because I do know better than someone off the street how to make something happen in government.  But there is always push back, always someone (often amplified by the media) saying that there wasn't enough citizen engagement... I really struggle with how to match that reality with your well-argued thoughts!

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LMFAO @ "A man uses a laptop. Reports suggest that he doesn’t understand Claude Shannon’s information theory..."

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