Can we move beyond the parameters of cynicism?

Transcript of a talk I gave at UX Australia, August 2018.

I’d like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are meeting. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and the Elders from other communities who may be here today.

I’m Jim McCool and I’ve been practising Human Centred for nearly twenty years;; I’ve worked mainly as a contractor or a consultant, and I moved from the private sector to the public sector about five years ago, where I’ve worked on a very wide range of projects for wide range of government departments, including AMSA, Dept. of Health, Dept. of Employment and many others.

I want to share some of the insights I’ve gained from my lived experience working in government

And I’m going to look at some of the problems that human centred designers in government have to face (you could say face up to). And then we’re going to look at what — if anything — we can do about it.

First off, let’s look at design in government and what we’re actually hoping to achieve. We’re going to look at design from the perspective of human centred design. We want to design and deliver better, inclusive services for the people of Australia. Surely we can all agree with that. But let’s be pragmatic; let’s be down to earth, and let’s see what the government themselves say. The government’s own Digital Transformation Agency states

“We exist to make it easy for people to deal with government. We help government transform services to be simple, clear and fast.”

Simple, clear and fast — certainly sounds good.

And there are many areas of government where people are working hard to do just that: public servants working very hard within very tight budget and headcount restraints. However, there are other areas where designers are really struggling to create these services that make it easier to deal with government, struggling to deliver services that are simple, clear and fast — and in my experience, among these are services targeted at some of the most disadvantaged people in Australia, people who really need help — the unemployed.

Unfortunately, the government doesn’t make access to services for the unemployed simple, clear and fast. The government makes it very difficult. Data from the OECD shows that the requirements for receiving benefits in Australia are particularly strict, with some sources claiming that they are the most onerous in the developed world. And we’ve all heard the scary stories of robo-debt collection, the proposals for drug-testing and now, the new demerit system, the effects of which we’ll see in the coming months.

Government video explaining demerit system for unemployed.

Well, why should this be so? Why should it be so difficult for the disadvantaged to access the services they need? Is this down to bad service design? Is this down to bad infrastructure?

Well, certainly there are technical problems with legacy systems, but if you talk to people who work on services for the unemployed, as I have, they’ll tell you that one of the greatest constraints they have to battle with is government policy. It is government policy that actively prevents them from taking a human centred approach to service design.

Deliberate neo-liberal policy.

Neo-liberalism is a political doctrine that believes that government services should be cut back or privatised, and that the free market will always be the most effective way to deliver services. This was first proposed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the eighties, but it really became steroid-driven in the 1990s in the years of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, with a vast dismantling of social services and a wave of privatization

To proponents of neo-liberalism, it is actually government itself and government services themselves that are the problem. And for them, the number one target among these services is ‘welfare’. An Australian government minister has even stated publicly his view that welfare is “poison” — so why would giving simpler, clearer and faster access to this welfare “poison” make any sense at all? From a neo-liberal viewpoint, it is better to actually deter people from trying to access this “poison.” From a neo-liberal viewpoint, you should make the system so hard to access that people will give up and simply walk away — or completely avoid it in the first place.

Policy is shaped by evidence, by research, but also by politics and ideology — and when that ideology is neo-liberalism, the policy can be directly at odds with the goals of human centred design.

And neo-liberalism is an ideology that has become very deeply engrained in the world of government, where it has become so all-pervasive that it has come to be seen to be the natural way of doing things, the only way of doing things. This is an ideology that proclaims that there is simply no possible alternative to the free market, and a widespread dismantling of the public sphere. Social theorist Mark Fisher has called this way of thinking ‘ .’

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, Zero Books, 2009.

“A pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thinking”

Fisher, M., Capitalist Realism, Zero Books, 2009. P.16

This is one of the key paradoxes we have to understand and negotiate in the world of service design in government. We have to wrestle with the problem of how we can design better public services for our citizens, when government policy is informed by an ideology which itself is committed to dismantling those public services.

Photo by Gerry Gaffney at Australia, 2018

Fisher, working in the world of public education, wrestled with similarly difficult issues, and detailed some of the workarounds his colleagues used to try and make sense of this paradox, to try and cope with these dilemmas. Some had become quite cynical. They identified the absurdity of the policies they were being told to adopt, and were outwardly contemptuous toward them, yet the reality of the situation was that they still complied completely with the policy. Fisher also documented the demoralisation that resulted from this cynical compliance

So, it is very important to question whether the paradoxes inherent in neo-liberal policies are issues beyond the confines and the scope of design. Do we have the tools to deal with these issues, or are they structural or systemic issues, political issues which must be dealt with as such?

Dr Reuben Stanton has argued recently at Service Design Now that service design is a political issue and that if we really want to affect change we are going to have to get involved in politics. Mike Palmyre at UX New Zealand identified how we need to break away from the narrow parameters of business value and move beyond capitalism. One step forward would be to break away from the strictures of a business ontology, burst out of the bubble of Capitalist Realism, stop being cynical and to start to be aware.

And what else are we left with? We still want to create better more inclusive services for citizens, what else can we do? What practical tools can we use? We can use the tools and methodology of human centred design.

We can at least try and align with the standards which the government has set for itself. Let’s look at the set of standards which were designed to ensure that government services are clear, simple and fast — the Digital Services Standard. Let’s take a look at the very first criteria:

Understand user needs. Research to develop a deep knowledge of the users and their context for the service.

This sounds like the very core of what of what we do in human centred design. Can’t argue with that. Makes an awful lot of sense. Let’s do some research, let’s really understand the user needs of some particularly disadvantaged citizens.

Research with the unemployed, even just a scrape across the surface, even just desk research, even the shallowest ethnographic study, will soon identify some key issues. They need jobs. They need money to find jobs. And they desperately need money to live on. Forty dollars a day on Newstart allowance simply isn’t enough. Even the neo-liberal former Prime Minister John Howard recognises this. So, is that so difficult? Understanding the needs of people who… desperately need money?

Is this a structural issue again, outside the realm of design? We can design the best possible services, make them super-efficient, but if they’re not meeting the critical needs of the users… well, it really doesn’t matter how fast and shiny we make them.

However, this issue is actually a really good example of how systemic issues bleed into tactical issues. The provision of digital services for the unemployed is an imperative for the government — digital services can be more efficient, and can save money — but then this initiative runs slam bang into the wall of poverty caused by living on $40 a day. How can you access a digital service if you can’t afford a digital connection? The Digital Inclusion Index identifies affordability as one of the three critical factors that exclude people from the digital world. After living on $40 a day for a while, you can’t afford data, you can’t afford to replace a broken phone or laptop. And if you haven’t got access, you can’t do your reporting to Centrelink, and that means that your payments will be delayed. And if your payments are delayed, then your bank will charge you extra for dishonoured direct debits. That’s going to take a further cut out of your $40 a day.

So what can human centred designers do?

Well, in your research you can make sure that you scrupulously document the impact of both structural and tactical issues. Don’t take anything for granted, or ‘as read.’ Make sure that the hard evidence is made available to help shape and change policy. And make sure that everything is traceable and searchable, so that when the minister’s office phones up late on a Friday afternoon, anxious to dispute your findings, you can quickly point them to the verifiable sources they need.

You can be open-minded and be ready to listen to the domain experts, the veteran Australian Public Servants who have been wrestling with technical and political constraints for many years. What they don’t need are designers who show little empathy for what they’ve been trying to achieve. What they do need are people who are keen to guide and to mentor, who are willing to pass on the skills that they have, to build up the human centred design capabilities of the organization.

So, in conclusion, what can we do in the face of the paradoxes of capitalist realism?

Well, we can shut down, be cynical, superficial, and pretend that it’s all business, as-usual. However, the fallout from dealing with working in a toxic environment can have very negative effects on your mental health and well-being. And we’re not going to be able to do anybody any good if we’re doing ourselves harm.

So be honest with yourself and the situation you’re facing. Be careful about getting involved in toxic environments. Ask yourself: is this an environment where I’m going to be allowed to really make services simpler and clearer? Is this an environment where I’m really going to be able to ‘understand the needs of users’? Or is this, like a research role offered to me earlier this year, an environment where you’ll need a ‘proven track record of supporting senior executive investment decisions’ — in other words, shut up and follow orders.

Most importantly, we need to stand by the principles of human centred design and put real people and their real needs at the centre of our work; because we’re not going to create a more just and inclusive future by putting a new coat of paint on business as usual.



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