The Future of Policy Design

Kelsey and I decided to write a short story, challenging the idea of what our future will look like if we continue to allow our world to be run by policy, and one where the population realized their involvement was necessary to affect change in the scale and breadth necessary. The full story is listed here. If you keep reading from here, the story will be spoiled.

The details on the president are intentionally left out for the reader to fill in. We make assumptions day to day, and many people are vehemently against the current administration. What Kelsey and I would like you to take away is the case of things is always malleable, we just need to create the change and be persistent enough to make it stick.

The first future is the one where the president was assassinated. Without the political unrest he was causing, without an end to the misplaced focus, the public grew complacent, and trusted the other party would act in their benefit. But the system was too old, it was too used to the way of things, so it did not change. The inequalities proliferated, and corporations took control after policy had bankrupted nations. The second future is where the unjust president was allowed to finish his term. Our idea was his level of corruption and lack of transparency were the catalyst for the public to care again. To become involved on the scale currently needed, there needs to be an event that sparks change. There needs to be a real reason to affect the change we need. I know it seems contrary, but complacency and acceptance of the state of things are dangerous to a society. Never be satisfied with unjust equilibriums and a system not designed for a user.

Now, to explain a bit more of the thoughts behind these stories.

Design today is pushing the boundaries of what human interaction is in all sorts of exciting ways. Technologies are redefining they way we interact with one another and it changes the way we interact with our “self.” Unfortunately, policy is not keeping up. Laws and regulations are being lightened, policies are creating an open season for data mining and selling of users, and it feels like our privacy is crumbling. How can these two futures exist alongside one another? Our society became divorced from the idea of a technological future because it is not what we imagined. But the technological future is here, and it’s time for us to step up and focus on the micro interactions and how they effect the macro scale social, economic, and technological economies. It seems as though using design thinking and the designer’s toolkit, policy can be made for it’s people instead of for the highest bidder.

Stephen Linder, in his piece “From Social Theory to Policy Design” he states, “Our attention to policy making has been skewed in favor of evaluation the consequences rather than the origins of specific alternatives.” The focus of policy making is misplaced. Understanding human needs and the way we interact is the basis from which policy should be created. Instead we have policy makers and law makers scrambling to fill gap after gap created by poorly designed policy. Instead of accepting failure as a necessary piece of progress, they do not admit to their mistakes and attempt to cover them with new policy. Linder goes on to say “Much of the policy debate in the past few years has centered on stabilization policy, the use of various instruments to counteract short term fluctuations in economic performance.” Here we see another underlying problem of the focus of policy. Laws are to be created as long lasting paradigms for behavior, but more and more policy is being created and just as quickly needing to be patched or rewritten because of a failure later on. Policy is focused only on the short term, for reelections and to fulfill part of their platforms, politicians rush through to make the change they wish to see. But it is not the change we ask for. Our system does not consider the micro outcomes for individuals, but only the macro outcomes and implication. Saving money is more important than education, a bonus from Comcast is more important than privacy.

Policy focus on macro-outcomes has led our society down a path to become more chaotic and less focused on how an individual experiences the world. Our policy is disconnected from it’s people. Rebecca Wright, in the article “Connecting Past, Present, and Future,” makes a case for returning to previous ways of life. She says “…by paying closer attention to some aspects of past societies, it may be easier to combine the goals of greater societal equality, protection of the environment, and economic prosperity.” Her idea of learning from past mistakes and looking to the implications of current situations on the future is right, but her execution seems to be a bit muddled. She says “Historical evidence suggests that people could adapt quickly to the introduction of technologies that reduced the energy demands transport and other everyday activities. Such policies could also help to reduce social inequalities.”

Now while it is understandable policy needs to curb the use of fossil fuels and a major cause of this is transport, but her claim of a reduction in social inequality seems disconnected. She uses the examples of the poorer majority in 19th century were able to deal without rapid conveyance compared to the bourgeoisie, but the inequality simple things like this caused were rampant and glaring. Farmers were used as forced labor through indentured servitude, tithes were required for guardianship and corruption was prevalent. Our current society has checks and balances to mitigate these, but ultimately, if you remove the ability for people to travel at will, you remove part of their freedom. Policy already limits personal freedom and creates a less fettered environment for economic growth and proliferation at the expense of the wellbeing of the world and it’s people. Instituting inequality is not a way to reduce inequality.

It seems we should follow Wright’s idea of past implications and future implications on what we do in the present, but Jennifer Pahlka’s execution seems a bit more realistic. She says “…Perfecting imperfect laws is the best chance we have; as the complexity of our society increases our chances of getting policy right the first time goes down rapidly.” The change needed is not to focus on pieces of inequalities, but focus on a more rapid iteration of policy with an understanding of the far-reaching implications beyond the present. Pahlka also makes a case for co-design in policy, or at least an increased focus on testing. The MACRa regulators reported that they’d just written the best rules of their career, having benefitted for the first time from real world feedback during the process.” The tools of design seem to being to cross into the world of the policy maker. Allowing for a greater focus on the individual than the assumptions made based on their trends and voting behavior. Where then did they divert? How can we bring them back together?

Chris Meierling has an idea, stating that “Policy makers and designers share the same wickedness and deep uncertainty of their problems yet different approaches to cope with them have risen out of each area of practice.” He compares and contrasts the ideas of policy and design and how they attempt to tackle the wickedness inherent in the problems they solve. On design Chris says “…design context puts great weight on people’s stories and interactions…and is implicitly open to the subtleties of people’s experiences with design products.” On the other hand he says “[policy making is] attempting to remove emotion from decisions and the legacy structure of the political system that attempt to whittle problems down to a single interest chosen from two.” The biggest disconnect between policy and design is their contextual focus and the tools used to process the information. In design, a user is taken into consideration, and multiple permutations and paths are created to consider a multiplicity of experiences. Policy, as we have seen, focuses on the macro view as it’s base, allowing for stakeholders to be the loudest voice instead of the people. Town hall meetings are seen as “good PR” and not a viable form of communication with constituents. Ultimately, policy needs to shift and use design tools instead of the tools they have created for themselves.

Chris Meierling also talks about what tools are used by both designers and policy makers. While similar in structure, the importance and take aways from the tools are significantly different. Policy makers focus not on the individual, and not on the bigger picture of effect, they focus on the benefit to them, their political career, and their image. Designers focus on the person, and let the artifact speak for them as a piece of their conversation and a tool to support their life, not define it. Therein lies the necessity, policy needs to shift from a controlling entity to a supportive entity, as design supports it’s users, policy should support it’s people.