Mistake #2: Working with government
Conversations you rarely overhear: “I had to contact the city council yesterday. It was such a delightful experience that it lit up my whole day. Everything ran so smoothly I was finished in under 5 minutes — it’s so impressive how they’ve rearranged everything to fit how I think, rather than their own structures.”
On the contrary, most people hate dealing with government. They fully expect it to be a painful experience. At a deep level politicians and civil servants simply see the world differently from normal people. They are the masters at constructing elaborately labyrinthine systems in which it’s easier to get lost than to make something happen. Worse, these systems have, at their core, an insidiously twisted and tantalising logic which makes them almost make sense. The longer you’re exposed to them, the more you feel that it’s simply you missing something, and things must just have to work this way. And, as there usually isn’t any alternative, you just grit your teeth and put up with it.
And so, when governments build websites, they reflect this crazy worldview. And worse, if you are building a website which lets people interact with their government in some way, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing likewise. Avoiding that is one of the key things any civic engagement website has to overcome. It’s a difficult task at the best of times, and almost impossible to avoid if you end up working directly with government.
Many people who build these sorts of sites start with an assumption that their site will be better if it’s government supported. This is almost always wrong. They will force you go do things in all sorts of ways that will make your site resemble the official process. And worse, even thinking about getting official support usually steers people down a path that makes their sites more closely reflect how government already does things without even realising it.
The best sites smash this wide open, and make it possible to bypass all the bureaucracy. They reflect how we want to interact with government, not how government wants us to interact with them. And the best way to do that is to completely isolate yourself from the existing systems. Work out first of all the simplest possible way things should be. Then build that. Only then work out how to interface with how the official system actually works. Once you’re tainted with that knowledge it’s almost impossible to forget it and approach the problem with a normal person’s mentality.
This is a great opportunity for civic hackers. Coming up with ideas for great civic websites is fish’n’barrel territory. Simply find a government function that already exists, and which people would likely participate in more often if only it were easier. Then make it easier.
Of course, that’s not simple. A lot of effort goes into making things effortless. But every step you can remove from the existing process makes things significantly better. People expect pain when dealing with bureaucracy. The more you lessen that, the more people will love you.