Prompt #2: For all the talk of user-centered design & citizen-centered policymaking, what is the actual role of "users" and "citizens" in our work?

(Note: This is our second attempt at debate writing. Where Anna, Jesper, and I each have 45 minutes to respond to a provocative question we grapple with in our day-to-day work. You can read our responses to the first prompt here).

Anna's Opening Statement

La 27e Région began its experimentations in a high school about to be renovated in Revin, in the East of France. At this time, things looked pretty simple: students, teachers, maintenance and administrative staff were all users of this high school, and the project – called the “Résidence” – was made for those users, with those users, every single day of the project. It was at a local scale, with a concrete object of interest – the high school – and using a methodology strongly inspired by service design and participatory urban planning. La 27e Région replicated this process twelve times in different places, with different people, all over France. 

With our second program called “La Transfo” the question of the “user” became central: in this program, we were installed in the heart of four Regional public administrations, in a landscape of offices, computers and coffee machines, precisely where policies are manufactured, with the double desire to transform those policies in a more “user-centered approach” and to transform the people making those policies. In a way, we had the ambition to rethink the entire conception cycle of public policies. The place for the “citizen” – and which citizen? – became difficult to find in our program, more easily involving public servants from different agencies than every day people. 

Civil servants 'in action' as part of La Transfo.

Ethnographic approaches, field work or immersions were used as tools to make civil servants feel the reality of others, to approach day-to-day life in a sensible more than a quantitative way, and to test and improve our ideas… but the "user" in this case was more a tool than a partner to co-create the policy with.

So the burning question is: should we do differently? Can we do differently? As a laboratory of the future of public administration, should we claim to do “co-creation with citizens”? We think that what we teach civil servants through our program “La Transfo” is still better than the alternative: letting them think that they are making a process participatory just because they have planned two public conferences. We don't think that everybody has to be involved at every step of a process, but we do think civil servants have the right to create, that is to say, the right to be imaginative without having to be consensual or to please someone. Of course, making them realize they can be creative is already a hard part of the change! Yes, real fieldwork would be way more instructive, and way more accurate… And yes, creativity has to be inspired by sensible experiences and correctly reframed questions, but the intrusion of “real people" into civil servants' work and the development of their imagination is already a small victory.

Sarah’s Response

Anna raises the age-old conundrum: is it better to do something incremental or nothing at all? In this case, is it better to bring the citizen or end user into the policy process as a reality checking tool - whether through an ethnographic story, a photograph or a persona - or leave them out?  

I would argue the question isn’t what is better, but what is right? Is it right to engage every day people and use their stories for our ends as designers, social scientists, and innovators? Is it actually ethical to door knock in a neighborhood or meet a family in front of a grocery store, invite them to tell us about their life, and then use what they’ve shared as our prop? To be politically contorted behind closed doors? Without them in the decision-making room? Without any clear value accruing to the folks in the neighborhood and the family in front of the grocery store (beyond a one-off payment or gift)?

I ask these questions because I have done just that. I have spent hours with older people, young people, families in crisis, women in domestic violence shelters and listened to their huge stories. I’ve gone away and written-up what I learned. And I’ve used that material in presentations and workshops. All with what I thought was a decent enough goal: to enable people in decision-making power to have an ah-ha moment. So that they just might make some better decisions.

Sarah spending the evening with Dana, eating McDonald's and swapping photos.

But therein lies the rub. By using users in such an instrumental way, I fear we are perpetuating the same old, same old power structures. We are not confronting the distribution of authority. And it’s the distribution of authority that I believe underpins many of the nasty social challenges we are trying to address.

Like domestic violence. The subject of InWithForward’s current project in Apeldoorn, in partnership with Kennisland. At its core, domestic violence is about the woman’s loss of decision-making authority. Her partner has violated her autonomy. She shows up to a domestic violence shelter, and the social workers decide what kind of help she receives. The child protection system determines if her kids are safe with her. The state figures out if she is eligible for benefits, and how much she should be able to live on. She has very little meaningful control. And then we go in, collect her story, and try to use it to help her social workers, and the child protection system, and the benefits system understand her needs better. But we’re not actually confronting the elephant in the room, which is, should the social workers, and the child protection system, and the benefits system have that kind of decision-making power in the first place? Should these institutions really exist in their current form?

Of course, this is a pretty darn radical proposition. And it’s unlikely we’re going to get the system to sign-up to dismantling itself as a precondition for engaging every day people. So what’s the alternative?

One alternative we will soon try in Burnaby, British Columbia is to collect stories with a different purpose. So rather than as a tool in a public design process, we will collect stories as the first step in building a local movement. A movement that we hope will be owned by the people who are the ‘subjects’ of the stories. This means we will do ethnographic field work and partner with people to develop their stories. In written, film, and podcast form. Folks will give us permission if and how to use their story. Whether only in the local context - to help attract resources, champions, and partners for prototyping ideas they believe in. Or whether we can also use stories outside of that local context - to help build a broader narrative and shape public servant thinking. 

No doubt, as we try this out, we will encounter ethical dilemmas. And we won’t always get it right. It’s all too easy to appropriate somebody else’s story, and make it your story, with little notice. The best we can probably hope for is to be critically conscious and constantly mindful of our values: to redistribute power so that we can shake-up entrenched inequalities. And just maybe, improve life outcomes.

Jesper’s Response

What is better when instrumentalizing people’s experience in developing public services? And how can it be rightly pursued as ends to achieve our goals as designers, researchers or innovators? These questions could be supplemented by a third: how do you justify this kind of project in the first place?

There are certainly ethical issues to consider when going about making people subject to intense learning and more or less accurately translating their experience into knowledge foundations to be used in a change-making effort. In particular if it is done when claiming to be doing ‘co-creation’ or ‘user involvement’. People do become instruments for people in power and will risk being (mis)represented for political purposes or economically fuelled argumentation for certain decisions.

In employment services in Denmark, the major development agendas revolve around being citizen centric and empowering citizens to take responsibility of their own life and progression. Here, the constant question is: what can actually be expected from the citizens when attempting to build the personal and local resources? There are certainly huge risks of expecting capabilities among citizens that are unrealistic seen in relation to their everyday lives and their experienced capability and motivation. What MindLab attempts to do in this context through citizen-centered research is first and foremost to provide a vivid reminder of who the targeted people actually are. What could their living situation actually look like? What characterize their journey through the service system? What do they feel and experience? And what makes their lives meaningful?

This task is at once both fulfilling and extremely dissatisfying. Because, yes, it does create ‘aha’ moments and a sense of all the possible unintended consequences that employment reform are likely to have for the targeted publics. On the other hand, it inherently does not represent all aspects of actual experiences of people. And it is not only the process of simplification that hurts - reducing human experience to sound bites or video clips - but the people are also often left behind after handing over their struggles, fears and secrets to you. You certainly want to give something back. A desire that is rarely fulfilled in any significant way.

However, what we are also talking about here is the nature and scope of the knowledge that informs decision-making processes. In this perspective, it does make sense to remind the Ministry of Employment about who the citizens are when they are changing their system practices or about how social workers are already struggling to implement many other development initiatives and therefore cannot be expected to create the politically intended outcomes by next month. Being citizen-centered in this project is about making practice more visible and tangible to illustrate the premises, scope and implications when targeting this group in employment reform. The consequence, in the end, will hopefully be a renewed and more dynamic relationship between policy and practice.

The Mind Lab team bringing the 'citizen' into the policy process.

But whether you can call this being ‘user-centric’ or ‘human-oriented’ is certainly a relevant discussion to have. Especially when these approaches are tied to what is often called ‘participatory design’ and ‘user-involvement’. Neither of these are automatic products of doing ethnographic or qualitative research. Just as inviting citizens to participate in an ideation workshop does not legitimize labeling a project ‘co-creation’ or ‘co-design’. To be actually designing with people requires much of what Sarah highlighted as important premises and discussions.

What I do appreciate about the movement of ‘user-centrism’ is that it contributes positively to changing the ways in which the state goes about continuously rediscovering the public and its problems. It adds a perspective and nuance that is currently missing. It not only enables the creation of professional empathy among decision makers to actually recognize the character of the lives of people as well as some of the consequences of their interventions. It also creates a vivid and useful reference point to mobilize and work with the relevant constellation of actors around a particular issue. In fact, the user perspective is much less a direct involvement of the citizen and more a way of motivating and involving the people responsible for the problem to address it more productively.

What are your reactions? How do you 'use' users in your own work?