How low is the common denominator?

It’s been a while since I linked to one of Jessica Hagy’s Indexed cards, which neatly capture connections contrasts and overlaps.  This one sets a question for service designers, and perhaps especially public service designers.   Do brilliant ideas have to have polarised responses, or can they be brilliant and inclusive?

If we can do brilliant and unitary, that would be great – and the thought parallels the change in philosophy in web design in recent years away from having an ‘accessible’ site in parallel with the proper site (often more limited and less up to date) and towards designing sites simply to be accessible in the first place.

But there are few – if any – areas where with meaningful choices, everybody chooses the same.  That’s why almost all restaurants offer a choice of food, and even the few which don’t operate in a world with a choice of restaurants.  It’s why, to bring this a little closer to home, the Met Office and the BBC present the weather very differently, though the forecasts and the data used to present them are the same.

In government, though, there is a tendency to uniformity.  We like our single portal approach, even if there are three of them.  And if the eggs are many and the baskets are few, experimentation and innovation are unattractively high risk (honourable exceptions notwithstanding).  That’s not good.  But worse still, this is happening in a world where failure is still not readily tolerated, let alone embraced.  I was talking yersterday to a government CIO who said that one of the key differences between his public and private sector experiences was that in the private sector projects were stopped much more rapidly and much more decisvely once it was apparent that they were not delivering, a thought echoed by Ian Watmore in his valedictory PAC hearing:

An innovative organisation tries a lot of things and sometimes things do not work. I think one of the valid criticisms in the past has been that when things have not worked government has carried on trying to make them work well beyond the point at which they should have been stopped.We are getting better at doing that. (Q4)

But even if we get past that problem, we are still in a world of single solutions, which bring with them overwhelming pressure to design for everybody, and so for nobody.  Open data may be one effective route for applied subversion, but valuable and important though that is, it doesn’t address the question of whether government can create passionate users, it circumvents it.  Can monocultural innovation generate passionate responses?  And if it can’t, or can only do so fortuitously and rarely, how do we get to the top right of the index card?


  1. Would reccommend this paper by Fernando Mendez for some philosophical background.

    It highlights Sir Karl Popper’s argument that “you cannot introduce a political reform without strengthening the opposing forces, to a degree roughly in ratio to the scope of the reform”… seems this applies as much to egovernment and edemocracy as it does to any other political change.

    It also makes the interesting point that e-government and e-democracy reforms, given their potential to upset the status quo not just in terms of political processes but also in electoral outcomes, resource allocation and policy delivery and the associated bureaucratic structures “will not necessarily be perceived as politically neutral”… another reason why there can be reactions against change.

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