The case for resilient, sustainable communities in an age of complexity
On June 1st, 2017, President Donald indicated he would pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. Subsequently, many of the nation’s mayor’s and states said they would comply with the agreement despite Trump’s decision. It seemed as if many in America came around to the same idea: the federal government had failed Americans, and furthermore Americans may have made a mistake by relying on it and the president all along. It’s an idea that one of their traditional political adversaries had promoted for decades.
It made sense. A cognitive dissonance had always pervaded The Left’s general worldview. Many buy local and advocate for personalized approaches to education, a real human centeredness in which the solutions fit the problems. The consumers know and collaborate with the producers, and decry a top-down and impersonal approach. But that seemed to cease as soon as it applied to centralized federal and state governments. They could solve big problems if they got their act together, if the right people took the helm. They would bring change. However, even when those individuals steered the ship, things didn’t improve that much.
Suspicion of a vast government, whether federal or(to an ever increasing extent) state, had served as a cornerstone of the philosophy espoused by American Conservatives. Conservative thinkers and politicians have declared on principle that solutions could not and should not emanate from a central authority disconnected from local realities. But The Right has replaced Conservatives, who now represent a minority in a party whose actions conflict with their most central beliefs. Now, the mainstream Republican party desires centralized control in federal or state houses of government just as much as their cousins on The Left. But rather than prioritizing affordable health care or student loan debt, The Right calls for a powerful government to push through draconian immigration laws, protectionist economic policies, an even more vast defense apparatus, and issues edicts that represent a very narrow and religiously derived worldview.
After the climate deal withdrawal, it seemed as if a new strain of political commentary emerged. Several mayors said they would comply with the accords in spite of the president. Already, municipalities from around the country had protested the proposed changes to immigration policy and a ban on immigrants from majority-Muslim countries and declared themselves sanctuary cities. Behind closed doors, many thousands more said, “I know what you’ve heard, but we won’t enforce these edicts.” A wave of urban nullification of federal decree swept the USA.
Municipalities just don’t have the time or resources to go along with the new focus on immigration, which represents nothing more than another unfunded mandate. Traditionally, partisan politics don’t play a big role in municipal elections. As Fiorello La Guardia once said, “There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets.” While centralized state and federal governments make declarations, unsung and unknown heroes in the public sector do more with less in what often feels like a Sisyphean task. They try to fulfill their oaths to create safe and prosperous places by relying on pragmatism rather than grandstanding. And that pragmatism extends to city dwellers.
Problems with unclear possible solutions and complex underlying causal dynamics run rampant. Governments just can’t cope. But they weren’t built to. Relying on them is like a craftsperson relying on broken hammers and saws made 100 years ago. However, through facilitated collaboration and co-creation, through human-centeredness as applied to government, as better future is possible. Prioritizing equitable growth unlocks the innovative capacity of everyone. All of the citizens in our communities can stand a greater chance of enjoying the fruits of our prosperity. Human-centered governments (thank you to Christian Bason for coining the phrase) localize solutions to our needs and bring about productive changes better than any other approach. Responsible stewardship over problems means jumping into the milieu of human frustrations, armed to the teeth with rational empathy. The collaborations that come about to solve big problems will develop from the bottom up. Their legitimacy will derive from functional need, rather than imposed authority.
Current strategies either make things worse or fail entirely, pushing our problems further and further past our ability to rectify them. It doesn’t matter where one falls on our now antiquated political spectrum, as leaning in on a future in which these problems are addressed will inspire an approach to governance that puts community benefit above political or partisan gains.
Current strategies either make things worse or fail entirely, pushing our problems further and further past our ability to rectify them. It doesn’t matter where one falls on our now antiquated political spectrum, as leaning in on a future in which these problems are addressed will inspire an approach to governance that puts community benefit above political or partisan gains. A global sea change in public sector management driven by human-centered design already flourishes in the USA and slowly chips away at the edifice of command and control government that scientific management once inspired. The American version of it appropriately reflects the unique situation of the country. Creating and cultivating sustainable, resilient communities will prepare for and address complexity and unforeseen economic and social disruption, possible by using the framework of human-centered government. This will provide the basis for new bold and important projects that ensure generations to come will prosper.
“Are we screwed? I think we’re screwed.”
Communities across the United States now face crises on almost a daily basis. These crises have come about because of the dynamics that some promised would bring greater prosperity and democracy. Many of these paradoxes come as no real surprise to long time observers of politics, economics, or technology. But even those observers often seem at a loss for how to navigate the outcomes.
Inequality ranks highest among these issues according to social scientists and economists, including Thomas Picketty, whose book Capital, a 700+ page economic text, hit the New York Times bestseller list. But why do these professionals, with a staggering amount of experience and expertise among them, care so much about inequality? In fact, in the United States especially some commentators point to inequality as an indicator of the country’s success, rather than as a shortcoming. These commentators essentially conflate inequality with capitalism, which rewards the risk takers, the doers, the ambitious, and the clever. While many on The Left admire the Scandinavian countries’ successes as measured by quality of life indices, The Right sees high, heavily graduated taxes that approximate theft from the most successful. Not to mention the distribution of that theft to the “lazy” and “undeserving.”
Richard Florida’s recent The New Urban Crisis also argues that inequality represents the most urgent issue of our time. Furthermore, he reckons that severe inequality comes about in part because of the policies he once evangelized. In his 2002 book Rise of the Creative Class, Florida wrote that prosperity in municipalities hinged on a class of creative “doers”. These entrepreneurial professionals included startup founders, designers, marketers, advertisers, or software developers. Florida wasn’t wrong, and there’s a decade of data to support his claim. However, while overall prosperity has increased in cities, the level of inequality has grown exponentially in parallel.
In his more recent The New Urban Crisis, he offers something of a mea culpa. He points out that those that enjoy this new prosperity skew white: 73.8% of creative class jobs go to white people. The amount of capital that flows to this class of people skews even more. The Gini coefficient, used by organizations like the World Bank and World Health Organization, measures wealth inequality. A low Gini coefficient indicates a small range between the rich and the poor. A higher Gini coefficient denotes greater inequality. For example, Denmark scored a .25, one of the lowest in the world. Countries with unequal wealth distribution include Swaziland (.504), El Salvador (.469), and Rwanda (.468).
The sad reality is New York City’s Gini coefficient matches Swaziland. San Francisco’s and Boston’s Gini coefficients approximate El Salvador’s and Rwanda’s, respectively. Without question, our poor may fair better than the poor of the countries listed above, but economic distribution is undeniably bipolar. Cities don’t represent the regional centers of economic opportunity available to many anymore. A service class makes up the bottom rungs of the ladder, serving the food and driving the Lyfts for their creative class counterparts.
What’s happening here? Most cities once served as regional hubs, save for a few global capitals. A wave of internationalization began long ago starting in the 19th century with innovations such as electricity, railroads, and the standardization of weights and measures and timezones. Technology and relaxed trade policies caused cities to transform into conduits of a global network. This internationalization decimated cities and occurred long before the phrase “globalization” entered the common parlance. At least in the USA, the actively divested from cities, and the the government encouraged a flight to the suburbs with regulations that made buying a house and driving to and from work cheaper, and zoning or housing ordinances that favored the white middle class. Meanwhile, cities lost their industrial base as manufacturing activity moved into suburban or exurban industrial or office parks or overseas. Cities became “sites of growing and persistent poverty, their housing decayed, crime and violence increased, and social problems, including drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and infant mortality, escalated. As urban economies eroded and tax revenues decline, cities became dependent on the federal government for financial support” (Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis, 5).
Brands, companies, and other economic activities stepped into the vacuum of prosperity. But it hasn’t become more human centered. Rather than revive an earlier dynamic, a new, more unequal one arrived. The Cleveland Clinic exemplifies this disconnect. A global brand in clinical and life science research, it operates within a functional island within Cleveland. Cities like Cleveland once had close ties to entire regions humming with economic activity. Now, they connect only to wealthy, bedroom communities, and the new urban prosperity left out the rest. Thought of this way, residents of rural Indiana may have a lot more in common with West Bengal. People with ambition or a desire to advance or succeed have left their rural home to seek their fortune in the big city, whether that means Chicago or Calcutta.
Economies have both encouraged and benefited, at least on a macro scale, from what Florida refers to as “clustering”. The clusters have provided “the fundamental impetus behind not just the growth of cities but innovation and economic growth writ large. It is no longer natural resources or even great corporations that drive economic progress, but the tight clustering together of diverse, talented people in dense places” (Florida, “A Declaration of Urban Independence”, Politico, 6/23/2017). Florida calls the unfortunate side effect of this clustering “winner-take-all” urbanism. With the ties of local community gone, prosperity benefits those living and working within islands of activity, and to a lesser extent those that serve them. As a result, many have found themselves stuck in the service class with no hope of getting out of it. Exemplifying this, mega-slums in Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Nairobi, and Sao Paulo pack in millions of clever, entrepreneurial, and ambitious people from the hinterlands who can hope that their children will escape the cycle.
These dynamics have affected civic life so much that few can even fully comprehend what happens in the world. More dangerously, many in our country, our communities, and our families claim that they can with overly simplistic arguments that make an enemy of the educated or experienced and generally involve blaming “the other”. Unfamiliar and jarring, our governments at all levels seem to fail over and over to address our complex problems. Both sides have a tone that hints at or outright calls for a more authoritarian and decisive approach. This authoritarian rule “involves a public sector as an all-knowing entity and…has the ability to sanction or validate certain decisions based on authorized knowledge” (Christian Bason, “Introduction: The Design for Policy Nexus”, Design for Policy, 50).
The Right, reduced to a series of resentments and baited by Fox News and many other upstart media outlets, has backed Donald Trump whole hog. He has created a brand that puts him at odds with the politically experienced or with subject matter experts (also known as The Swamp). He thereby aligns himself with those who believe they in fact know everything, or at least more than those working in government or often with any formal higher education at all. He frequently advocates for policies that the entire political spectrum finds loathsome and dangerous. For these Fox News junkies, almost any government intervention intended to lift all boats translates to an attack on rights. Every pothole indicates the public sector’s inability to execute. Every project given to a contractor transpired because of back-room dealings.
The Left, those now claiming themselves as “the resistance”, has many just as concerned. The Left has shut down talks at universities by scholars any intellectual could get behind. But “over the past 25 years it has been The Left’s project that has collapsed. The market destroyed the plan; individualism replaced collectivism and solidarity; the hugely expanded workforce of the world looks like a “proletariat”, but no longer thinks or behaves as it once did” (Paul Mason, “The End of Capitalism has Begun”, The Guardian, 7/17/2017). The party of The Left, the Democrats, rely on a deliberately created structure in which “real overarching goal is maximizing political patronage opportunities. That means catering to the rich while still making enough gestures to non-elite voting groups…to cobble together enough votes to win enough elections so as to stay in the game. Thus the Democrats have managed to ignore how they have hemorrhaged representation at all levels of government during the Obama era” (Yves Smith, “It’s Not (Just) the Working Class. It’s the Service Class”, Naked Capitalism, 6/22/2017). Many in the Democratic party, open to free market solutions and public-private partnerships, frequently encounter pushback from The Left in their base, who seem to suffer from an allergy to any solution with a basis in the free market at all. This misalignment has caused a schism among those who would oppose The Right. As a result The Left with no serious party, philosophy, or pragmatic platform for change. Instead they spend their days in quixotic intellectual adventures that accomplish little and alienate everyone.
The complicity of our governments in these problems ranges from apathy (“close enough for government work!”) to winner-picking. Generations of efforts to ensure transparency and efforts to minimize corruption have succeeded when examined through a particular lens. But they have lost sight of the intentions or principles behind the policies. Rather than resulting in something human-centered that might help with compliance, government often treats citizens like a potential criminals until they can prove otherwise.
For example, byzantine tax policies require billions of dollars from Americans to pay a professional to help them. Given our 33,000 page tax law (the fault of Congress) and no online form submission (the fault of the IRS and the tax preparation industry, including Intuit and H&R Block, and oddly the anti-tax crusaders), they aren’t making it any easier. Now widen the scope from taxes to our entire regulatory and legal framework. Very understandably, people hate the government and perceive it as ineffective. It spends all its time doing things in the name of the people, but more often than not it does so to protect existing interests. So rather than the needed government, it’s lawyers upon lawyers that never do anything that well.
Many of those in public service are there because they think they could do a better job for their constituency or issue better than the other person. Aligning the passions of ambitious people with the public interest has brought the country this far. But the mechanism by which it executes no longer fits today’s problems. And the process at almost every point fails to center around the individuals and their needs, and looks a lot more like “we know what’s best for you.” Ideas have to travel a great distance from policy idea to approval. The job of implementation falls on subject matter experts, but silos of competency have developed that make it difficult to generate multi-disciplinary, human-centered, holistic approaches.
Along the way, intent and a sense of desired outcomes disappear. The government releases a new service or regulation. They lack the stewardship to understand whether that intervention made any real difference. The oppositional relationship between government and citizen persists. Rather than governance by the people, or even with the people, it’s a warped version of a government for. It gives a hand out or a slap in the face, and a depersonalized, centralized government decides which.
Ordinary citizens have to jump through endless hoops, while the government neither expects nor requires any hoop jumping for a privileged few. The 2009 financial crisis illustrated that clearly. Normal citizens face an audit for filling in the wrong box. But throngs of Wall Street professionals, driven by greed, wrecked the economy and the government comes after a few of them. An incredible transfer of wealth from middle class homeowners to those who had caused the crisis occurred. Those most affected received no help, while major financial institutions received an unheard of bailout. Meanwhile, many countries in the E.U. had to contend with a new era of austerity. They cut any benefits in an effort they claimed would keep the lights on.
Big corporations have received billions of dollars in subsidies and other tax incentives. These represent a welfare check in all but name. The government picks winners all the time, a trend that has caused and exacerbated our current state of affairs. As A Fine Mess describes, “Giving a big payment to the rich, a smaller payment to the middle class, and nothing to the poor, wouldn’t stand a chance in Congress as a direct appropriation. But, in fact, this system already exists, in the tax code” (T.R Reid, A Fine Mess, 76). Many of our deductions become more and more favorable the higher up the income ladder you climb. This government gives a handout in the form of lower taxes paid on capital gains. So if you’ve earned income from moving your money around, you pay less in taxes. If you earn income from moving other people’s money around, you pay less in taxes (called “carried interest”). Tax incentives seek to influence behavior, but almost all of these incentives favor those who already have money. The government spends a significant amount of money as tax deductions helping those already with money to climb even higher. Add the mortgage interest deduction and subsidies for highways, and it’s much easier to start to understand inequality. Worse, we’ve also made it harder and harder for people to advance beyond the level of their parents.
Local governments also protect existing wealthy concerns. Zoning laws once served as a buffer between citizens and industrial activity. Housing policy sought to provide needed assistance to the poorest citizens. But both took on a racist tone when they became vehicles for deliberate segregation. Many of these policies remain on the books to this day. Left leaning city governments make grand gestures about impeaching Trump or becoming sanctuary cities for immigrants or refugees. Meanwhile, they either refuse to update zoning laws to address housing scarcity, or do so in a manner that benefits the powerful real estate developers and displaces long-term residents, rather than creating more housing for new residents in the lower or middle tiers of the economic spectrum.
Florida calls those powers that be the New Urban Luddites, although many just call the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard). They declare they welcome refugees and want to help poor people. Meanwhile, none of those people can live there because affordable places to live don’t exist. A lucky few among the service class can live near where they work. The rest must use crumbling regional public transportation infrastructure to get to and from their jobs. This almost guarantees that they will never leave their station because they spend so much “free time” getting to and from work. They make just enough to cover housing, transportation, education, and healthcare. But such a situation probably sounds pretty familiar to folks who don’t consider themselves a part of a service class. The government is indeed human-centered in some respects, although centering on only a few humans.
Combatting complex problems requires a change in approach, and soon. As Florida writes, our system “reinforces the advantages of those at the top while exacerbating and perpetuating the disadvantages of those on the bottom. Take together, they shape not just inequality of economic resources, but also a more permanent and dysfunctional inequality of opportunity” (New Urban Crisis, 114). Our growth will sputter and struggle. In addition and opportunity cost will creep higher. The creativity, productivity, and entrepreneurialism of a large percentage of the population goes to waste. Meanwhile, those born into the upper 20% have a reserved spot in the most prosperous sectors. And this economic segregation will only persist.
The elephant in the room is the quasi-civil war in which policymakers in the federal and state governments never seem to escape, and provides an epic distraction from actually developing sustainable solutions for most of the humans those policymakers represent. As I write this, an unpredictable reality TV star helms the ship. Donald Trump became president despite losing the federal presidential election in the popular vote. He lost by huge margins in the areas that create most of the country’s prosperity. Disproportionate electoral power enjoyed by the suburban and rural areas of the USA put him there. These same areas decry liberal elitism and share a loathing of government. Meanwhile, those in the most prosperous areas of the country pay the bills for other constituencies that hate us. The federal government once demanded civil rights for all Americans. But because of the unfair leverage over the federal government enjoyed by rural and suburban communities, it has a mandate to take these rights back. And it will take away the rights of many others along the way.
This government and the system it represents allowed Donald Trump to happen. Can anyone afford to hope that one-sized fits all approaches will address the biggest problems that many face? Can a social safety net developed over decades and designed for a different time and economy be repaired? What are the odds for creating and cultivating the sustainable and resilient communities of today, next year, or in ten years?
Many feel they have lost almost everything that once made them proud. Reflecting, one realizes that for every one thing that inspired positive feelings about the country, someone didn’t share in the benefits. That, or someone didn’t receive those benefits him or herself, and his or her reminders of this fact fall on deaf ears of those unwilling to admit that the benefits weren’t universally shared. So many feel shame and embarrassment for our country. It’s time for an alternative to the mechanism of centralized government, and to articulate a shared future, and a shared goal, created together with the framework that human-centered government provides.
What’s a future look like that citizens can create together and that human-centered government can bring about? Debates about services for the poor based only on decency or “rights” go nowhere. They’ve been going on for centuries. Nor will philosophical arguments for a socialist paradigm or a laissez faire free market, which have become so ubiquitous and circuitous that many have just stopped listening, and as it happens, history doesn’t make a great case for either. But the data does clearly back up one important argument: ensuring society provides for everyone’s basic needs leads to greater innovation, prosperity, and entrepreneurship. Everyone, everyone, does better when part of resilient and sustainable communities. These communities can weather almost anything without being turned on its head or even disappearing. This idea has grown and grown, and as the thinking of those from across the political spectrum has aligned, it has rapidly picked up steam.
One time cornerstones of the American ideal have gone from pragmatic conversations about execution to political posturing and gamesmanship. No one will ever win, although much of society still waits for things to play out long enough to get down to business. I’ve waited my entire adult life. But problems persist while one side argues for the state, and the other argues for the market or charity. My take? Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.
I and many others envision a human-centered government. Our public sector would act as a convener, a facilitator, and a coach, prioritizing important problems and starting to address them. The government should not be the sole entity that solves them. But they can convene any appropriate configuration of public and/or private resources, and at whatever level of government. Maybe the thing that solves it comes from the private sector. Maybe a public-private partnership on the state level works well. Or perhaps the municipal government provides the whole thing, like it does now with education. The public sector should take ownership of problems, and weigh viability, feasibility, and desirability as it addresses it in whatever way suits the problem.
At the core of this thinking lies the belief that rather than scaling up, the public sector should focus on localizing solutions, and move higher or wider only as needed for the sake of coordination. While on its surface this seems simple, it calls for a fundamental shift from our current modus operandi, and devolve power from the federal and state governments. Broaden the mandate of local governments and stop sending the federal and state governments as much money. Keep the money and fund our new mandate. This is the devolution solution.
The founders thought of the federal government as a union of states. The federal government derived much of its legitimacy from those states. Customs and import taxes accounted for the lion’s share of funding that went to the federal government (about 90%). In Boston, the old customs house was once the largest building in town, rising higher and grander than any other building. Our first nullification crisis came about over the issue of customs, when South Carolina tried to skirt new duties in order to undercut other states between 1832 and 1837.
Our present day nullification has a different tone than the one almost 200 years ago. So much of what prosperous cities pay the federal and state governments leaves our communities. It goes to places where municipal or state-level governments have failed to understand that their intolerance, religious dogmatism, xenophobia, and luddism closely link to an absent prosperity. Those in the urban centers either have to pick up the tab, or wait for funds to come back from the federal government but now lined with red tape. Why allow a federal capture of the funds generated in NYC? Why not let the money that NYC’s residents make stay in the city in the first place to help fund their own, locally-appropriate decisions about things like public housing?
We should free these regions up to compete on the basis of innovation. Hopefully, they’ll understand the need for equitable prosperity and equality of opportunity to do so. The most progressive and forward thinking cities in America understand this, at least in principle. But they face severe limitations on what they can accomplish because so much money goes to the federal government.
One key aspect of local control means that municipalities and regions will have a broader mandate for problems they can address. The following four trends characterize these governments:
- “User”-centric, in which measurement and evaluation of policies start and end with the experience of the affected citizens.
- Hypothesis driven government interventions to help those trying to solve a problem ask better questions and understand results. While public employees steward the experimentation, the drivers of results can come from anywhere.
- Standardizing, improving, and accessing public data. This will help better understand existing problems and measure change. Share that data with stakeholders engaged in future-making activities.
- Visualization and curation of data to help cultivate a shared language. Understand problems across silos of competencies and various levels and agencies of government, and with actors outside of government. (“Trends in measurement & evaluation offer opportunities for charities says NPC report”, UKFundraising, 06/27/2017)
These points bring the policy making, and future making, as close to home as possible. Governments will declare, “No matter what happens in the world, our citizens will thrive.” They will encourage innovation and prosperity. The citizens themselves will make hard choices, and a failure to create sustainable and resilient communities will impact the constituency’s success. But they won’t have those who prioritized things correctly to pick up the slack.
But the federal government can and should have a strong role in this new era. Under federalism, states can do what they please in many areas. But during the civil rights movement the federal government stepped in and said, “and we’ll enforce a fair administration of the law.” The federal government does that now with educational goals, patient privacy laws, and environmental standards. More improvement is possible. How about, “you need to meet these standards and provide this for everyone, and we’ll make compliance easy”? Meanwhile localities can experiment with the way to meet those standards in whatever way works for them.
The federal government underwrites world changing research and development. It maintains a strong currency. It used to successfully attract talented immigrants from all over the world. It has an important role to play. But it needs to allow the decision on how to best achieve courageous goals. On even its most basic mandates the current federal government and its president have failed to execute. Take its power away to limit the impact of periods of mismanagement.
The rubber hits the road on taxation, otherwise it’s a moot conversation. Economists and tax experts around the world agree on one thing: the design of a good tax regime checks two boxes: it draws from a broad base, and has low rates. Stop picking winners by eliminating all deductions. Rather than the phantom subsidies, act openly and grant funds where it’s needed. We’d see the effects upon ending subsidies for more roads and suburban housing. Instead, let’s try things like putting that money towards creating denser cities, growing our public transportation infrastructure, and subsidizing affordable housing in the places where that public transportation travels.
A Fine Mess provides a terrific analysis of the tradeoffs between tax regimes, which does a far better job than I could. But here’s an idea: unify our tax regime, a move that would set the wheels in motion for a more citizen-centric society. Under unified taxation, citizens would pay taxes to the government closest to us. So for example, I would pay my taxes to the City of Cambridge, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The city would keep its cut, and send the rest onto the various other collaborative relationships that require funding. So for example, if the communities of eastern Massachusetts confederate in order to tackle public transportation and the community college, Cambridge gives a share of my taxes to that. A cut goes to Massachusetts for things like the state universities and environmental protection of the Massachusetts bay. And then, a final cut that goes to federal government, to support things like national defense. The federal government serves as the primary authority in ensuring a stable and fair market. So implement a national value added tax for commerce to further fund national programs.
If a municipality decides they want to try a flat tax, feel free. If instead they want a graduated tax intended to redistribute income, feel free. Don’t like it? Go somewhere else. Colorado Springs had an experiment with libertarian economics, maybe you can get that started again there. Want to double down on social programs? Move to Vermont, where they failed to implement single payer health care, but maybe you can help next time. In whatever scenario, municipalities tax for their population. Despite what the Texas legislature thinks, they’ll have a far greater chance of competing if they have more control over the money they bring in, and how (some of the best writing about local vs. state control comes from Texas as well). Historically, Republicans have a special lust for defunding the government. However, they also excel at doing so without modifying existing mandates. They want local and state governments to continue providing services, but without help from the government that once funded them and without the flexibility to collect more revenue on their own. So shift that spending down, and localize our government interventions.
At present the bulk of local revenue comes from property taxes and sales tax, as well as occasional fees and charges levied by the government for things like filing fees or development charges. This, too, needs a rethink. Already affluent communities have gamed zoning laws and other building restrictions to benefit existing home and business owners and discourage densification. Property tax regime and rent control laws stifle innovation by making housing in city centers affordable to only a small percentage of the population. The land value tax serves as an alternative to the property tax. It assesses the value of the land that any structure sits on provides the basis for the tax, rather than subjective appraisal. A municipality comprises a known quantity of land, and every parcel represents a percentage of that quantity. If it chooses, the city can subsequently tax the land based on the productive use of it.
A focus on municipalities alone won’t work. They need the coordination between many municipalities that share a common economy, sometimes referred to as comprehensive regional planning. The mechanism of human-centered government can provide this. A tremendous chasm has opened between metropolitan areas and the regional economies that globalization has left behind. Furthermore, as I sit at my kitchen table in Cambridge, out of one window I see Boston, while through the other window I spy Somerville. You would never know you were in different cities by just walking around. While regional coordination already exists (for example, here in the Boston area), a greater acknowledgement of our shared economy would expand it.
Cambridge, where I live, serves as home to many big, bold projects. These came out of a period that ended around 100 years ago, before our modern bureaucracies even existed (and it might be worth considering that this is the reason the era stopped). It’s home to the first subway system and a little technical institute known as MIT. The Charles River, once a tidal estuary, now meets a dam near Charlestown and now maintains a stable depth. That allowed development in Cambridgeport to the north and Back Bay on the Boston side.
Few cities have the capability of executing on big, bold projects on their own. Boston’s most recent project, The Big Dig, has come to exemplify government’s inability to get things done on time and on budget. The federal government helped to fund the project. In doing so, it removed the planned subterranean train lines that would’ve connected Boston’s North and South stations. Since then, another infrastructure project sought to extend the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s Green Line. It has sputtered and stalled for years awaiting federal approval. Meanwhile, public transportation infrastructure here languishes, as it does in cities around the country. Why have infrastructure projects become so challenging, even when we’ve successfully accomplished them in the past, and other countries seem to excel at them now?
The USA is diverse as a country on a multitude of metrics, so it’s time to leverage those shared sets of problems that occur closer to home. In the megacities of India, metropolitan London, and the mega-region of Buenos Aires, it’s same story. Regional coordination has shifted from a convenient mechanism for getting things done to an urgent exigency. Ideas like “Boston” give way to the “Boston metropolitan region.” While reading texts that talk about the city, I often struggle to discern if the writer means the relatively tiny city or the much larger metropolitan area (as it happens, this is no mistake when the government is involved, as some definitions provide more “useful” statistics than others). Metropolitan areas like Buenos Aires, London, and Los Angeles have a similarly confusing pattern. Such has the single city has diminished in the face of growing urbanization. In fact, this new regionally based group of needs represents both an opportunity and a wicked problem. While some ad-hoc mechanisms exist to coordinate municipalities, governments should open up along the four guidelines listed above. I discuss below how to create networked entities that can work together and become the new model for executing on big, bold projects.
From changing the relationship with the bureaucracy to integrating new digital paradigms, our toolbox now bursts with possibility. Rather than choosing any one paradigm, human-centered government allows one to choose whatever works depending on the problem. Digital paradigms have dominated the conversations on innovating government in the United States. Public data and increased transparency have topped the list in terms of priorities, probably because of the pretty clear mechanism for achieving them. This extends to digitizing access to government services, although with mixed results. Digitizing the agency’s experience, rather than the end user, has resulted in more mixed experiences, but now more of them and faster. Access to data and digitizing services have brought government into the digital age. But while digital may help with things like paying parking tickets, it has a hard time addressing more wicked problems. Digital tools work best when serving as infrastructure that connects a user to others, rather than connecting to more technology. Various actors can collaborate more and better thanks to shared data and documentation, and can have the honest, open conversation without which collaboration can’t occur.
Many governments have shifted their focus to the citizen’s experience and creating public value around that. This stems in part from the ethos of the industry that brought about the digital tools in the first place. Useful changes have come about as a result, such as need-based reorganization of services. In such cases, citizens have only one stop to make to start a business. Contrast this with having to travel all over town to get the right signatures on the right forms. I’ve done this, and it sucks and takes forever. Thinking about the citizen and her experience helps one to understand her needs at any moment. Many governments have come a long way by focusing on optimizing this journey.
Some gaping holes remain. The current centralized state and federal governments cannot address our problems. While new civic tech is interesting, it often only serves to only reinforce and encourage top down models. Good news for the scale obsessed. But is a future in which the government treats citizens as algorithmic input really that attractive? Their voice one in a great sea of “public opinion” that policy makers manage with the latest marketing analytics?
Tools in the toolbox may help, a reframing would help. The conversation only starts upon the creation of a strategy to act, and acceptance of the present problems. I have mentioned a human-centered government as a strategy. Rather than risk-aversion, it experiments and innovates, and without the “disruption” that Silicon Valley salivates over. The patron-client control regimes that characterize our governments have had their day. The time for a new kind of participation from citizens and role for the public sector has arrived. Onto design.
Human-Centered Government, by design
Companies ask consumers to shop differently. The future of medicine will be personalized entirely to your body. The entire field of behavioral economics focuses on how to architect choices so that you choose the best thing for you (albeit often to the benefit of the architect, rather than the chooser). It’s all more customized and more personalized. These paradigms shift the purveyor of products or services away from salesperson or provider. Now the relationship feels much more like coach, advocate, and facilitator, employing rational empathy for the end consumer and an open-minded understanding of problems. Design has done this for decades. Move past the more traditional understanding of design as “posters and toasters”, or graphic and industrial design. Because designers have melded existing skills and practices with a powerful theoretical underpinning. It ensures that a service, interface, or object is not only attractive and easy to use, but solves the right problem in the first place.
So what is this way of thinking? I know where you’ve probably arrived: design thinking. I can guarantee you the phrase annoys most designers more than anyone. To designers, there’s no magic in “design thinking”, which Jared Spool believes boils down to just….thinking. If there’s any qualifier at all to the phrase thinking, we’re all much better served by calling it collaborative hypothesis testing. Much like modern scientific practice, design embraces, even revels in complexity and situations with hidden solutions. But like science, design provides real and practical methods for collecting data where none exist. This information serves as a growing corpus of knowledge with which the design team generates hypotheses, runs and runs interviews and experiments based on prototypes, and arrives closer and closer to an understanding of a particular social phenomena and the solutions that affect them. Hypotheses and experiments serve as a vehicle understanding and changing the phenomenon as understood by the data about it, whether qualitative or quantitative. And everyone involved learns more, and develops better informed interventions next time. It feels less like “solved” vs. “unsolved”, and feels more like a journey that arrives closer to the center of a complex network.
This style of work drives innovation like no other practice. But what if one broadens the scope from the individual or team, level of an organization? Such an organization inverts the pyramid of decision making. Starting from the bottom, it engages in constant questioning of assumptions. It pulls together resources and voices in a way that best benefits the problem at hand. Expensive pilots attract all eyes, which judge success or failure and threaten some political careers along the way. On the other hand, a design-led organization has a far greater stomach for risk because it can test so many more assumptions and ideas. It does so with far fewer resources and which generate far more learning, and much, much faster.
Human-centered government derives from a design practice known as human-centered design, at the center of which lies co-creation. New Public Management adherents designed policies and public services for the citizen like a customer. Co-creation and human-centered design demands designing with all of the stakeholders affected by the outcome.
What does this mean in practice? For a far more in depth look at the human-centered design in government as it occurs now, I suggest my original article on the subject. But at its most basic, human-centered design in the public sector goes through two major phases, all of which occurred in a managed and contained process: the first, problem discovery and insight gathering, and the second driven by creative exploration of ideas. Designers often refer to this as “ideation”. Good and bad ideas evolve and become prototypes, often made in cooperation with those experiencing a problem and which designers use to see if the original idea affects the problem. This prototyping phase, which occurs over multiple iterations, leads to outcomes that the manager decides merits release “into the wild.” Then it begins again. The team understands the problem better because of the feedback from people on whatever they released. They continue to research, prototype, and experiment while providing constant stewardship over the original problem. And in the public sector, where “move fast and break things” isn’t possible or desirable, this exploration and experimentation occurs in parallel to the government’s existing functions, with one informing the other in a careful and balanced evolution.
Human beings of all stripes take part in human-centered design collaborations. The design team begins with extensive research into the existing data behind the problem. It generates more data by looking into existing solutions and localizes those. Most of all, it gathers information about the experience of those that suffer from it. This can mean interviews or simple observation of existing norms and behaviors related to the problem. It also includes the collaboration of those people providing existing services. For example, a team tasked with understanding gun violence would spend time with and understand the experiences of those affected by the violence, the perpetrators, and the police. Have you asked police about their frustrations and ambitions in the wake of a wrongful shooting?
More than any other practice, design aligns experience and the perceived desirability of the outcome, financial constraints and viability, and the feasibility of any solution. All the while, humans remain central. They may lie on the receiving end of the practice. They might contribute to feasibility or viability, like a private sector organization working in partnership with the government. Human-centered design, and by extension human-centered government, assures a seat at the table for all of them. It moves past the classic “two minutes at the mic” at the city council meeting, or required public feedback session. It provides an opportunity to get hands on in creating a possible solution. The team includes all of those affected by a problem. It also relies heavily on the professional designers that provide the facilitation and the technical know how to produce the helpful artifacts.
A human-centered design approach provides the only comprehensive framework for breaking down the silos that impede quality public sector outcomes. It doesn’t seek to pursue scale or reduce human experience to algorithms or spreadsheets. Instead, design allows for everyone’s thinking to broaden. It encourages a deeper understanding of the state of affairs. The organization itself evolves toward a structure driven by a greater understanding of the problem itself. But public sector work presents some unique challenges.
Throughout the world, innovation labs and nonprofits have paved the way, and have shared a tremendous amount of learning about human-centered government. Human-centered government’s most authoritative writer Christian Bason helped to establish Denmark’s MindLab. Since then, it has become a driving force in Denmark’s efforts to adapt its government to a changing world. In the UK, France, Chile, Australia, and Singapore, governments have adopted an agenda that embraces a human-centeredness for governance. Here in the US, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the United States Digital Service, and 18F have recruited tremendous talent to work in the public sector. The efforts of the Office of Personnel Management has helped cultivate competencies in myriad federal agencies. Code for America and the unparalleled work of Bloomberg Philanthropies lead a pack of nonprofits made up of many smaller, agency-style organizations, academic labs, and communities of practice that do terrific work. Bloomberg has set the pace with programs to bring innovation labs to various cities in the USA and abroad. Their “100 resilient cities” and their program to educate existing public sector professionals at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Affairs have shown strong leadership.
What have these organizations learned about using human-centered design for social problems, and using the mechanisms of the public sector? Disruptive change like that called for by the private sector innovation economy isn’t feasible Citizens need the government for services and a sense of stability. This in part has made the Trump presidency all the more terrifying. Public sector organizations must continue their existing work in parallel to more experimental efforts. Changes to service provision must evolve. The team must find ways to support and advocate for stakeholders any particular project touches. All of them operate at different speeds and have different accessibility requirements that need to align. Better said, “the core issue is to design coherent transitions whereby current obligations can be fulfilled while simultaneously building necessary future ones” (Christian Bason, Leading Public Design: Discovering Human-Centered Governance, Kindle edition). Rather than radical change, design-led organizations “unfreeze” existing structures to make them more adaptive and innovative (Leading Public Design). Government must cease to fund only solutions, and instead fund a process.
The shift towards design often clashes with the top-down decision-making style of the bureaucracy. As Tom Nichols describes in The Death of Expertise, the relationship with experts has taken a turn for the worse. Laymen offer opinions on all matters, regardless of their level of knowledge. Experts struggle to interface with the public, and often butt heads with other experts. Human-centered design leverages this expert talent and redirects it toward the problem at hand. In a design-led organization experts no longer execute on solutions, but engage as an equal partner and represent an extremely valuable asset. As the work of MindLab and many others have shown, design shines when convening people across disciplines. Often, these people pursue competing ambitions around a particular issue. The cacophony of citizen feedback and competing expert paradigms get focused.
Strong management ensures the success of a design-led organization, and buy-in from every level of the organization is absolutely critical. Design management takes full responsibility for stewardship over a problem. It manages the various resources, whether a dedicated team of professional designers, relationships with stakeholders, or subject matter experts. The manager shifts from bureaucratic decision maker to open-minded future maker. They prioritize organizational learning above all else, and drive to question assumptions. Digging deeper into research on the citizen experience emanates from strong management of the process. They also have the responsibility of articulating and simplifying everything, which helps to bring in other co-creators and to ensure transparency and accountability. Design managers don’t need a ton of design experience. Unlike existing efforts, these roles offer a terrific opportunity for mid-career public servants. Diversity of experience among a team breeds better work. It starts by mixing individuals at different levels of their profession, both with and without a background in design.
Design’s agnosticism to any one approach or mentality provides a framework with endless possibilities. For example, unifying localizing taxes will allow quick experimentation along the lines of what works for a community. For those taking on regional coordination, the work of the Agile Strategy Lab has done terrific work. They’ve explored and documented tools for creating regional networks that get things done. A design-led organization can try out any of these strategies, learn, and adapt their own structure as necessary.
For city governments getting started, existing design-led innovation efforts have succeed by starting independent innovation labs. Those working in these labs have freedom and flexibility. They can bring in collaborators that didn’t have a seat at the table before. A dedicated physical space provides public sector professionals room to convene on a project-by-project basis with other professionals, the hopefully starts a broader conversation about how the organization can evolve. Labs like these work to marshal resources that bring about change in increments. These labs build competencies within the organization. They integrate human-centered design from the ground up and in the day-to-day, rather than as a top-down paradigm shift. Managers need need a ton more help transitioning if they’ve already spent decades working a certain way. Allocate more resources toward getting designers suited for the public sector and getting them up to speed fast. Provide as many resources as necessary to public sector managers willing to take on the risk of something new.
Human-centered government, American style
I, like many other Americans from across the traditional political spectrum have grown concerned about the future of our country. Centralized governments have gotten worse, but the implementation of human-centered government must fit our reality. As an example, the work I most admire in human-centered governance has occurred in countries far smaller than ours, and much more homogenous. I’m not passing judgement, that’s just the reality. And those projects in the USA that integrate human-centered design have occurred on the city level.
I believe in human-centered government. But our current paradigm limits the extent to which it can spread, and the reality of the USA requires a unique style of human-centered government. While propping up structures whose day has long past, the calls for benign, authoritarian rule as the only way to get results have grown louder. Problems like jobs, the causes and effects of climate change, civil rights, and gun violence all relate at least in some degree to inequality of opportunity. How you understand the causal relationships between these wicked problems doesn’t really matter. Designed and implemented generations ago, our governments favor top-down, authoritative decision making by their very design. The founders of the country never envisioned this, and it doesn’t even work.
Jane Jacobs once said, “to seek ‘causes’ of poverty…is to enter an intellectual dead end because poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes.” Can communities weather periods absent great prosperity? If empowered, will people become another source of innovation? Rampant innovation in our world brings about its companion disruption. Waves occur. But our decrepit politics only ensure that our most wicked problems will only worsen.
But taxpayers fund this. While many blame the government for its practice of picking winners, the fault lies with citizens themselves. It’s time to shake the idea that maybe things will only improve if only citizens vote in the right people. In my lifetime, it has felt like waiting for Godot. Those same people will continue trying and failing to make something broken work. And now, the problems go far beyond anything the system’s creators could have imagined. And while local governments have a some work to do, human-centered design makes easier, more effective, and more cost-conscious. Allowing for greater local control and regional coordination will provide the groundwork for localized solutions. These solutions respond to the needs of its citizens, and human-centered design can provide the framework. It accomplishes this with the full collaboration of citizens and with a shared vision for the future.
Prioritize resiliency, and sustainability. Prioritize innovation. Co-create a country made of communities that meet everyone’s basic needs so more and more people can discover their potential. Stop fighting the forces of globalization, but ensure that everyone benefits. Craft a government out of our ambitions and needs, and realign our passions and interests. Build some unlikely partnerships. Go find some tough problems in your community, and get to work.
Adam is just some dude who works in design and like a lot of people cares about his community and his country. He wrote a companion toolkit for his adopted hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he serves as a delegate to the participatory budgeting program.
Many thanks to Richard Florida (@Richard_Florida) and Christian Bason (@christianbason), who I could not have possibly cited enough given their influence over my thinking. Huge thanks to the people much, much smarter than me who gave critical early edits to this piece: Chelsea Kelley (@cheleekel), Ross Centers, Ph.D., Victoria Choate Hasler, Ph.D., and Adam Sigel (@adamsigel).