Holding Out for Something Better

Essay by Rebecca Williams on the “Limits of Customer Service and Administrative Burden Frameworks” : “On December 13th, the Biden Administration published an Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government. The EO promises to improve a slew of government services with the help of technology and rests on a theory of change that these “customer service” improvements will “engender trust,” but does not speak to changing the substance of these public goods, which may be the primary cause of the public’s trust issues, only their delivery. While the EO harkens to democratic principles, it makes no mention of how public input informed why they were prioritizing the delivery of the services mentioned versus other services.

Words are imbued with meaning and connotation and using “customer service” to describe the delivery of public goods has a dark side. It’s not just that the analogy doesn’t logically work — everything that makes “customer service” high quality in the business context is missing from government, there is no competition forcing the government to attract and retain customers — this phrase will not get us there. It’s that this mismatch of power dynamics makes it a dangerous phrase to substitute in. Calling the public “customers” implicitly reduces their participatory power to mere consumers and doesn’t fully embody the government’s duty to serve all its people well.

Michèle Champagne @michhhamI “love how “service design” and “design thinking” consultants have slowly invaded public policy circles, where public servants and policymakers are taught that “design skills“ are mandatory positive thinking, rapid prototyping, and problem solving. Thing is, that‘s solutionism.April 21st 2021

It’s important in these times of diminished voter rightsrising police surveillance, and prosecution of protestors to protect our democratic rights and be wary of anyone co-opting democratic language for lesser rights. As illustrated by Michèle Champagne’s brilliant tweet (above), asking for feedback after the bulk of the substance has been decided isn’t democratic, it’s providing a very small set of choices and dressing it up as democratic.

Let’s move away from consumer language for public goods to participatory and rights-based language; let’s lead delivery improvement initiatives with public input and place these improvements in the service of larger debates about what collective goods we want to have as a community. For example, if 63% of the population is supportive of healthcare for all, let’s be sure related public service improvements contemplate and serve that substantive expansion; investing in more application infrastructure might make less sense than considering how technology can support the issuance of universal medicare cards or uniform reporting standards. This is a job the Executive Branch could spearhead (the Federal Government takes on pilots projects routinely with input from the public), but it is also one the larger civic tech community should hold in their minds as a possibility…(More)”.