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Design’s Role in Policymaking

By SOFÍA BOSCH

LABORATORIO PARA LA CIUDAD

Mistrust is palpable in Mexico between the government and its citizens. This happens in many city governments around the globe, but in the context of Mexico this lack of trust has major impact on the public policies that affect the daily lives of millions of people. Where do citizens’ misgivings come from? Two important culprits are lack of understanding and communication. The way public policy decisions are made in Mexico City creates a black box effect: Its citizens do not understand how, where or by whom decisions and changes are made. This fact shows the need for a more profound conversation about legible policy, design and its effect on public policy outcomes.

During the collaboration with the Royal College of Art, Future Cities Catapult and Superflux, we understood that many of our concerns regarding decisions made within a government structure are often the same, regardless of the city, country or context. Our questions were similar: Where were ideas for public policy incubated? Who made the decisions and with what type of information or data was considered?

Examining both our shared doubts and our different experiences, we reached a common agreement: The process of turning public policies into legible policies is essential because there is a clear and felt mistrust from civil society towards the decisions made within government. Not only do citizens not trust the leaders making those decisions, but they do not believe the choices made are truly for the common benefit.

Within the design profession practitioners are trained to employ several special qualities to determine a process that is both very tangible and understandable: empathy, common sense and pinpointing necessities, among others. If the process of a design solution is not understood, the client (in this case, the city and its citizens) will not empathize with it—they will not understand why a certain result is being exposed instead of another. This type of design-thinking should play an essential role in the way the government communicates to its citizens, if this bond is not respected in the process of public policy creation, the decisions made by politicians will never be understood by city dwellers. This results in misunderstanding, mistrust and a barrier that will not allow for better public policies to be put in place. It is imperative those in public service recognize the benefits brought by the integration of design to the policy making process. Working with designers as allies, they could develop and implement better strategies of communicating with the public and reconcile the two often-opposed fronts: the government and the citizens it serves.

DESIGN AS A TOOL FOR EMPATHY AND COMMON SENSE

Recently Donald Norman, director of the Design Lab and emeritus professor at the University of California in San Diego, gave a talk at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, ITAM, an important private university in Mexico City. The relevant object of study was not only his talk, but also the audience to which he spoke: Most of them were engineers, mathematicians, and people from the social sciences, many of whom go on to seek a career in the public service. Most of these students had never heard before about design concepts, such as human-centred design, behavioural design or even design thinking. One might think he was not speaking to the right target audience, but sitting there in the crowd I realized that this is exactly the type of people design concepts should be reaching. These are the people who will someday make decisions in government, and with the tools offered by design they will be better able to make thoughtful, prepared choices and regain the trust of their communities.

Norman spoke not only about his experience in different fields, such as education, health and technological emporiums like the Apple Company; the main point of his talk was to emphasize the importance of design in other educational careers because it brought to the conversation two far-reaching tools: empathy and common sense. A designer has to be able to see the big picture, to understand the wider panorama as well as the small details of a complex problem to try to iterate solutions and tackle it through limited interventions. This wide-angle view allows design to make informed decisions about a possible solution and the consequences it can trigger or unleash. Moreover, design has to work closely with its final user, to understand its needs, futures and imaginaries. This cannot happen without empathy, with which one tries to relive certain experiences to consider solutions or to deeply understand a specific topic to grasp the real needs. It is through the process of design that peculiar, empathic, culture-specific decisions can be taken. These are all qualities felt to be lacking in the current decision-making methodologies within governments.

As mentioned, a designer’s job is to empathize with the user to pinpoint problematics which need to be tackled in the design process. There is a constant complaint coming from citizenship about the government’s lack of understanding (and resulting poor performance history) of the everyday problems citizens face, especially related to participating in complex systems such as urban transportation. It is felt the solutions proposed by the government are not well thought out to consider the city’s inhabitants, but rather for the benefit of the government itself. Hence, having the data and possibility to communicate all the ethnographic research, observations and prototyping that goes into the making of every political decision would not only help validate the actions taken, but would help mend public perception of the government as a whole. Over a longer period of time, understanding how public policy is supported by evidence and data would promote trust, lack of which is one of the main problems diagnosed during the binational collaboration, and for this reason design methodologies should be applied to the making of policy decisions.

DESIGN AS A COMMUNICATION AND CONNECTION TOOL

A large part of design has to do with the way the solution is communicated or approached by citizens. If trust is absent and no connection is built, the solution will probably not be successful or will be prematurely discarded. This has happened many times with different public policies that are actually very beneficial for the city but are poorly perceived or received due to miscommunication and lack of understanding from the population. One example is the Hoy No Circula program in Mexico City, in which car gas emissions are regularly evaluated with respect to each car’s date of manufacture. If a car’s motor is not in good condition and emits too much pollution, the sanction is prohibiting that car from circulating in the city one or two days a week. In 2015, while reshaping the program, miscommunication about changes to the program provoked a total rejection from a large part of the population. The government failed to explain in depth how the Hoy No Circula program not only benefitted the city’s environment but also reduced the massive numbers of cars that create terrible traffic congestion throughout the city. Thus, after many public protests and support from opposition parties, users found a loophole in the legal stipulations of the program and insisted that cars could not be banned from circulating due to the age of the motor, but only by the level of gas emissions. This debacle created a way to allow 300,000 more cars to circulate without restriction in the city, triggering not only ferocious traffic jams, but an environmental crisis of air quality that had not been experienced in Mexico City in more than 12 years (Servín, González & Romero, 2015).

Mobility is a delicate subject in a city as big and populous as Mexico, and gives us this specific example of how poor end-of-process design can hamper a public policy that otherwise would be a plausible solution to enforce.

Politicians do not take into account that the last step in the creation of a new public policy—or the rearrangement of an old one—needs to be impeccable communication. If the population does not understand the new proposals they will likely resist the change. That is common sense: No one wants to try something new without knowing exactly where it came from, what it will do and how it will affect their daily lives. As much as we are social animals, there is a big individuality influencer: The decisions made must be beneficial in a tangible, personal way, more than in a collective way. That is the heart of the matter and where design can step in. How does the government communicate the personal benefits of a public policy without leaving behind its social and collective assets? How do we convince people that making long-term choices, even though the results may not be immediately visible, is the best road to take?

These are all interrogations where design can intervene. Design exists in the overlap of the social sciences and the arts, a quality that helps illustrate why it requires the creation of a communication campaign as part of the process to be taken into account by decision makers. Furthermore, design should be given the same importance as the rest of the political process. Without a proper outreach design appeal, it is practically impossible for citizens to grasp and understand even the most positive and genuinely progressive aims of the government.

DESIGN AS A TOOL FOR TRANSPARENCY

Design must not only become essential in the political and the forthcoming communication process, but as a democratization tool. In the moment that the government starts to have clear goals, with open data as a basis of decision making, with accessibility and accountability to its citizens, transparency is imminent. And a transparent government minimizes the risks of corruption and mismanagement.

Legible policy can be applied as street level interventions, where data and decisions are made visual and public to citizens, imprinted upon their everyday cityscape, as explored in the essay by Superflux (p. 107) and in the Hacks and Probes developed during our collaboration (p. 125). However, what happens when legible policy not only becomes a tool for understanding and conciliating decision makers and the general population, but also becomes a comprehension tool for politicians and public servants?

A great example can be found in Nicholas Feltron’s Annual Reports. For 10 years now, Felton has developed a series of data visualizations related to his everyday life. He has spent years collecting data on and mapping his heartbeat, both the banal and in-depth conversations he has had, the food he has eaten and his sleeping habits. Consequently, the American government has discovered raw benefits in this: Through his distilling of this data, people are interested in the story he has to tell, even when the information featured is so highly personal. For many years now he has applied his knowledge of graphic design and data to work in different projects related to public data. His data visualizations are so clear and graspable for viewers of all levels of experience and education that they are a clear example that graphic design has a large important role in the way the government permits the user to understand the information. Beautiful, accessible, tangible graphic design can be a democratic statement from a political view: If the government permits citizens to understand their information, their decision making, automatically the processes become transparent, inclusive and democratic.

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Nicholas Feltron’s Annual Report 2013. Types of Conversations.

 

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Nicholas Feltron’s Annual Report, 2014. Cover.

 

 

Lack of trust in the government creates a very relevant anguish in Mexico, and it stems from a long history of known corruption, the absence of accountability and the general perception of the government as a blurry institution with a very limiter public face. Using design to counteract this, the work of thousands of public servants can be visualized and communicated. As citizens, do we really know or understand how many people it takes to operate the metro system of the city? How complex it is to coordinate traffic lights in rush hour moments, or to assign beds in emergency rooms at public hospitals? The general population may not have a pressing need to know all of this information, but if the government opens up about these processes, an empathic understanding between the two parties can begin to be built.

If we want the idea of legible policy is to succeed, it is essential that it comes hand-in-hand with transparency and accountability. The government must be morally prepared to open its doors not only to the outside but also to the thousands of public servants that often (just like citizens) do not deeply understand the processes of decision-making (or even the main goals and values that is desirable we strive for as society). Perhaps in the future, a participatory and democratic indicator could be the degree of legibility of policies, including the degree of design inherent in the process of policy making awaits us in the future.

 

References

Servín, M., González, R., & Romero, G. (2015, Dec 14). Al borde del colapso vial: Insuficientes, planes de movilidad en el DF. La Jornada. Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2015/12/14/politica/002n1pol