Policy development is rarely simple even, or perhaps especially, when the question looks ludicrously simple.

There is a door between the lifts and the working areas of the building I work in.* The door sits at the intersection of three policies, and as a result, cannot satisfy all of them. Of the three, the one it comes closest to satisfying is the one which has least day to day applicability (though it is the one with greatest political salience).

Policy 1: Security Access should be controlled and nobody should be able to move into the working areas unless they have a security pass.

Policy 2: Accessibility Everybody, including wheelchair users, should have full access

Policy 3: Green Unnecessary power consumption should be eliminated

The current solution involves:

  • pass controlled doors…
  • … which are opened by electric motors…
  • … and open wide enough for long enough to allow wheelchair users to pass comfortably.

This theoretically meets the security policy, but fails in practice because for most of the day it is too easy to follow somebody in: passholders can’t close the door manually and won’t wait for as long as the automatic closure takes – even if there were a culture of challenging people, which there isn’t.

It does though make a pretty good job of delivering the accessibility policy: no manual strength is needed, and (as far as I can tell) the door itself is not an obstacle. But having power-operated doors used by people who are overwhelmingly able to open doors themselves then fails miserably to minimise electricity consumption.

For the past few months there has been a de facto alternative approach in effect, while the doors were being upgraded (or perhaps downgraded, depending on how you look at it):

  • unlocked doors
  • on spring closures
  • which open wide enough for wheelchair users, but are somewhere between slightly awkward and quite impossible for some people to operate.

That failed completely to meet the security policy – but then it wasn’t really being met anyway. It supports the green policy, albeit in a small scale way, but fails on accessibility – though how serious that failure is in practice is hard for me to judge.

Which of those two situations is better?

I have no idea.

I know which one I prefer: the second makes my life marginally more straightforward, and saves me several entire seconds every time I go through the door. It has the more subtle advantage of not irritating me with the security theatre of a locked door which in practice doesn’t need a key to get through. And I suspect that that would be the popular choice. But that doesn’t make it inherently the right choice. The accessibility policy clearly should carry some weight. But exactly how much weight should it carry against the green policy? Enhanced security is a good thing not a bad thing, but what was the security problem in the first place, and exactly how much extra security are we buying in exchange for how much extra inconvenience? And if those are both too small or too difficult to measure, which one should take priority and why? And so it could go on.

It tends not to with doors. Somebody makes a not very soundly based decision, the rest of us may mutter but live with it, and the world moves on. But many things are both more complicated and more important than that. If there is no inherently right answer to the question of how a door should open, how much less so how government policies should be designed and delivered?

That’s not an argument for giving up in despair. Quite the contrary, it’s an argument that complexity is unavoidable and needs to be managed. Equally, though, it’s not an argument that decisions of such weight and complexity can be taken only by high-powered mandarins. Quite the contrary again, it’s an argument that where different perspectives exist, they are best artiuculated and resolved by those who hold them. User centred design can start with the very basic.

So what’s the point? Well at one level, no more than that I am a very midly irritated door user (quick: how many mildly irritated service users do you have who will never say anything but whom you could make happier?). But the real point is that complex choices are, well, complicated. What turns out to be the right answer depends heavily on what was decided to be the right question. Or, to quote myself in a slightly different context:

Politics is essentially about finding ways of making complicated and inter-dependent decisions across a wide range of interests. Doing that is inherently hard (which is one reason why it’s so easy to criticise politicans). Doing politics differently may be very attractive, but that doesn’t mean that what is being done is any less political.

*The picture is not of the actual door we are talking about here. You can tell because it doesn’t look as though it complies with Policy 2.

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