April 23, 2024

Improving the Government's User Interface

The White House’s attempts to gather input from citizens have hit some bumps, wrote Anand Giridharadas recently in the New York Times. This administration has done far more than its predecessors to let citizens provide input directly to government via the Internet, but they haven’t always received the input they expected. Giridharadas writes:

During the transition, the administration created an online “Citizen’s Briefing Book” for people to submit ideas to the president…. They received 44,000 proposals and 1.4 million votes for those proposals. The results were quietly published, but they were embarrassing…

In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide wi-fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.

Once in power, the White House crowdsourced again. In March, its Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted an online “brainstorm” about making government more transparent. Good ideas came; but a stunning number had no connection to transparency, with many calls for marijuana legalization and a raging (and groundless) debate about the authenticity of President Obama’s birth certificate.

It’s obvious what happened: relatively small groups of highly motivated people visited the site, and their input outweighed the discussion of more pressing national issues. This is not a new phenomenon — there’s a long history of organized groups sending letters out of proportion with their numbers.

Now, these groups obviously have the right to speak, and the fact that some groups proved to be better organized and motivated than others is useful information for policymakers to have. But if that is all that policymakers learn, we have lost an important opportunity. Government needs to hear from these groups, but it needs to hear from the rest of the public too.

It’s tempting to decide that this is inevitable, and that online harvesting of public opinion will have little value. But I think that goes too far.

What the administration’s experience teaches, I think, is that measuring public opinion online is difficult, and that the most obvious measurement methods can run into trouble. Instead of giving up, the best response is to think harder about how to gather information and how to analyze the information that is available. What works for a small, organized group, or even a political campaign, won’t necessarily work for the United States as a whole. What we need are new interfaces, new analysis methods, and experiments to reveal what tends to work.

Designing user interfaces is almost always harder than it looks. Designing the user interface of government is an enormous challenge, but getting it right can yield enormous benefits.


  1. The words says it already, it is an improvement.


  2. I was one of the tens of thousands of citizens who wasted their time and attention participating in the “experiment” of having the government actually listen to the public. It produced a valuable result — the participants were among the first to discover that Obama was going to be Tweedledum rather than Hercules pulling down the pillars. Obama even went out of his way to ridicule the public suggestion that got TWO of the top ten rankings (marijuana legalization). Now that’s inclusion! That’s embracing change. Yes, we can — ignore you and belittle you. We were among the first to really know that there’s nothing behind the Obama reality distortion field. And that has been valuable, as others labor onward, foolishly “hoping” Obama will somehow wake up and fix the most obviously idiotic policies that he inherited.

  3. Many people are glad to hear that the government has finally re-launched recovery.gov website. This website was and is supposed to keep all of us informed about just what all of our stimulus dollars are doing, if anything. It sure doesn’t look like much at this point, but the website promises to be far more interactive and user friendly. So far the Department of Health and Human Services has paid out the most money. The website does report projects and contracts paid out for, so we have some sort of knowledge that the taxpayer funded payday loans no faxing have gone somewhere other than to Wall Street, that is if the reporting of recovery.gov is accurate.

  4. Focusing on the specific responses and their validity and relevancy misses the point. This experience exemplifies the debate between Bottom-Up and Top-Down Innovation. If the US government really wants to tap the Bottom-Up ideas of the general population, these results point towards pockets of opportunity in education, activism, and stewardship. A similar phenomena occurs within the confines of many companies. Check out the February 22nd entry at http://bottomupinnovation.blogspot.com/ for a discussion on Bottom-Up versus Top-Down Innovation in the government.

  5. Keep in mind that the same people that turn out in large numbers to vote for a particular issue on a website may also turn out in large numbers to vote in the next election, and will favor candidates that took their side on that issue.

    So maybe they are worth listening to after all?

  6. I think anyone who imagined that internet polling numbers for ideas would be turned directly into policy initiatives was very much in an oldstyle dotcom frame of mind. Of course you’re going to get results skewed by particularly dedicate groups, just as you get that skew for letter, faxes, phone calls, personal visits, campaign contributions and so forth.

    Politicians have always used various metrics (most often, recently, “So how is this issue going to change my correspondent’s propensity to vote for me, canvass for me or give me money”) to transform constituent communications into policy positions. Instead of asking how we can get more people to set priorites they may not have a very strong interest in setting, maybe the thing to do would be to look at different ways to crunch the raw data to get a sense of what priorities cluster together in interesting ways.

  7. I think this result is actually true and accurate – it’s just an example that people don’t _really_ want to live in a democracy, because that would mean that poor, stupid, young or liberal people would have a say in how our lives are run.

    It’s very surprising to rich, clever, old conservatives to find out that they’re not alone.

  8. Vincent Clement says

    The decriminalization of marijuana is one of those low-hanging fruits that would have big impacts. It would partially solve the overcrowding of jails and prisons. It would result in limited law enforcement and legal system resources being redirected to areas where it is needed. It could eventually become a new source of taxation revenue for the government.

    But you have deemed it to not be a pressing national issue. End of discussion, right?

  9. … relatively small groups of highly motivated people visited the site, and their input outweighed the discussion of more pressing national issues.

    It is important to note that in government, this dynamic is nothing new. What is new is that these “small groups of highly motivated people” did not need large sums of money to get some attention. The web is one way for this to happen; the other is to provide good copy for the news/entertainment media. An example of the latter is the discussion of “death panels”, which, of course, is nothing more than the fantasy of a “relatively small group of highly motivated people.”

    A good question to ask is: why do some of these concerns get to be “pressing national issues” and others are marginalized? It appears that, with enough money, anything can acquire the status of national importance and be acted upon by the government (e.g., bringing guns into national parks). It also appears that become part of the story line of national news/entertainment shows also confers legitimacy on an issue (e.g., the modification of end-of-life provisions in the health bills in Congress after the “death panel” story took off).

    So what we have is a not-so-new story: comments from run-of-the-mill people on the web are not considered valuable. You need to have something that endorses the comment to make it carry weight and value.

  10. However, those three suggestions – legalizing marijuana and online gambling and revoking Scientology’s tax-exempt status are really fine liberal things to do, and should be done forthwith. Far more harm is done by criminalizing drug use than e.g. by lack of contributions to children’s cancer.