We live in a federal democracy — at least, in theory. We should be able to interact with multiple layers of government — federal, state, local — to address our needs — in theory. In reading this, both of us know that reality doesn’t live up to that promise. The national-level government is usually such a dumpster fire that we don’t pay much attention to our governors and state legislatures, let alone our city councilors or school board members. One study found that 99 percent of people in New York City’s media market never read local news on the web.
That’s a problem. Our local-level institutions are here to help us out, and its employees have far more direct influence on our daily lives than Congressmen, Senators, or the President, yet most of us tend to devote our attention pretty singularly to the latter of that group.
It isn’t solely our fault, though; our lack of interest in local institutions stems partly from local government’s ineptitude in serving us. Of course, that varies greatly from town to town, but effective local governments are an exception that proves the rule. Think about it: if you wanted to start a business in your town and you needed to head out right now to get the process started, where would you go? Odds are, it’ll probably take a lot of Googling and fishing through outdated websites just to figure out what dusty government building you need to visit.
The potential there for improvement through design is limitless. That’s what then-Gainesville, Florida city manager Anthony Lyons saw when he stepped into the position. He was saddled with some huge questions: the city had a great research school in the University of Florida, but it wasn’t retaining all the local talent the school was churning out. They didn’t see potential in the city’s economy to provide for them when they graduated, so they took their talents elsewhere.
Lyons consulted IDEO, and they looked at numerous other American cities to see what they did when faced with brain drain. The answer was pretty cut-and-dry: cuts to taxes and regulations. That, so the logic goes, makes the math work out a little better for local businesses. But Lyons saw it as a cookie-cutter solution that would fail to distinguish Gainesville from its competitors.
Instead, they began a ground-up reevaluation of all the things the city’s government did (or was supposed to do) for its citizens. They came to an unsurprising conclusion: people couldn’t engage with the city, either because they didn’t know what the government could help them with or because the processes to get that help were hidden and complicated.
So they took to the streets. They scrapped the traditional model of a town forum — a long, dull meeting in a sweaty high school gym that few people had the time to attend — and turned it into a human-centered ideation session. Parked out on a street corner, Lyons and city employees gave people prompts like WHY DO YOU STAY IN GAINESVILLE? and TELL US ABOUT A GREAT SERVICE EXPERIENCE YOU’VE HAD LATELY to gain broad insight about their relationship to the city and the other institutions surrounding them.
From these sessions, they came to the conclusion that Gainesville’s operations were too disaggregated and disorganized. To set up a small business, for example, a citizen would need to putz around to several different DEPARTMENTS to get several different PERMITS. This process served the government well — a paper trail and a means of assuring compliance with important rules are ultimately quite necessary — but it was unhelpful for a new entrepreneur with big questions about starting a business.
So Gainesville and IDEO consolidated several city departments under one roof, calling it the DEPARTMENT OF DOING, and trained its employees to be broadly knowledgeable about a variety of citizens’ potential needs rather than specialized in a single area. This way, Gainesville’s government could act like the front desk at a hotel — residents could come to the city for whatever they needed, and the city would guide them through complex problems in a way that was tailored to their specific needs rather than the government’s.
This, to me, is a useful case study that can and should be applied to all levels of government. Our distrust of governments stems directly from their outdated modes of practice and a general unwillingness to grant citizens the level of input we deserve. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little effort and a little empathy, government can do so much good.