Recap by the Event Moderator: John Lorinc
How should politicians and governments go about designing policies and public consultation processes that engage, rather than alienate, residents and voters?
It is easy to pose the question; far more difficult to conceptualize an answer. At the Toronto DesignMeets, held in late November at the Loftraum, several speakers offered views on the points where policy and design could intersect.
In the past, governments may have had a more intuitive understanding of public sentiment. Historian Bruce Bell, discussing an early design of the St. Lawrence Market, observed that “the City just knew” the building worked. But how did the City just know? How could an institution, or the senior officials within that institution, so completely understand the needs and wishes of residents?
It’s certainly not the case in our much more complex society. Jutta Treviranus, director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD, points out that many institutions have systematically disregarded the needs of those on the margins. But as Jamison Steeve, the former principal secretary to Premier Dalton McGuinty pointed out, governments are rarely able to execute coherent policy because the political process throws up so much friction — from the opposition parties and the media. Consequently, the heavily compromised process for designing public policy leaves all parties — decision-makers and voters alike — dissatisfied and disillusioned.
Yet technological change may provide clues on how to develop a more inclusive and less confrontational approach to policy design. Microsoft’s Bruce Chau, who founded Make Web Not War, said the open data movement has the potential to radically improve participation and accessibility by making information available to external developers, who apply their own expertise to problems such as providing residents with information about services such as recreation programs. Chau described a process that combined design and technical savvy with a pragmatic understanding of a specific public policy problem.
Michael Young, a graphic designer at the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, added that the user interface of public policy — websites, program portals, etc. — must reflect universal design principles that seek to break down the exclusionary nature of some government information.
But the process for designing those policies must itself reflect better and more communicative design, observed Dave Meslin, a long-time advocate of improved public engagement. He pointed out that highly standardized government communications — for example, notices of development applications – achieve precisely the opposite of the stated goal: with highly technical language and a complete absence of compelling graphic design, these notices serve to discourage public engagement, even when they are ostensibly seeking to invite it.
Governments today go through the motions of public consultation because they understand that they can’t just operate by fiat, or assume that they know what’s best for the public. Still, the heavily compromised public policy process undermines the awareness among policy-makers of the limitations of their understanding. So does a poorly designed process lead to an unsatisfying product?
Professional designers certainly know the answer to that riddle, even if our political leaders do not.
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